A New Wave of Sustainable Coffee Culture

Southern California is Officially on the Map

Imagine the feeling of waking up as the sun settles in, 365 days a year, waiting for the sweet, dynamic flavors of coffee to wake your dreamy state. Nearly 150 million Americans are coffee lovers– or as some call it– coffee connoisseurs. Drinking coffee is one of the most simple pleasures often taken for granted in the modern world. The hustle and bustle of our daily lives often draw away from examining the source of our consumption. Where do coffee beans originate? How do they arrive in our favorite café locales? This is a human condition many are guilty of.

But what if you knew over 125 million people worldwide depend on coffee for their livelihoods yet most are living far below the poverty line? Coffee farmers around the world are unable to better the lives of themselves, their families, and their communities. Deeper investigation reveals that coffee is as destructive to our planet as mass produced beef or single-use plastic. This not-so-shocking revelation has kickstarted reforms emphasizing the need for coffee equality. A new wave of regenerative farming aims to reduce social and environmental injustices associated with coffee production.  This trend is emerging in the most unlikely of places-–Southern California.

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How Is Coffee Made?

Before diving into the how's and why’s– let’s clarify that coffee beans are, in fact, a seed. The most popular species deriving from Coffea shrubs are Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora (Robusta). These species account for more than two-thirds of coffee produced and consumed worldwide.

As the legend goes, ancient coffee forests rose from the Ethiopian plateau. Goatherd Kaldi observed the effect of the Coffea plant on his goats. Upon eating the coffee fruit, his goats became hyperactive– staying awake into the late hours of the night. Kaldi presented his findings to the local monastery who sought to concoct a new beverage with the wild seeds. The monks crafted a brew so potent, it would turn them into nocturnal beings. Thus, coffee was introduced as a remedy for sleepiness and made its grand entrance into the Western world through trade and globalization.

Now, don’t go out pressing a bunch of wild coffee seeds together and believe it’s equivalent to your daily roast. Coffee production is much more demanding. Of its many forms, coffee seeds resemble tiny red cherries with a green “bean” at the center. Before the 13th century, coffee was made with the entire ​​fruit of the plant– both bean and hull. Post 13th century, Arabian artisans began drying and roasting beans in the coffee-making process we know and love today.

Two post-harvest methods utilized by coffee producers worldwide are natural processing and wet processing. In natural processing, the cherry is left to dry in the sun resulting in the slight fermentation of sugars, creating a sweeter product. Washed processing involves pulping the cherries that surround the bean before drying, enhancing their crisp, bold flavors.

After beans are hulled (stripped of their husks), graded (sorted by characteristics and quality), they are distributed for roasting to bring out their natural undertones. Once beans are roasted, they are packaged and make their way into your morning ritual.

Where Did The Sustainability Movement For Coffee Come From?
Fair trade coffee entered the lexicon in the 1980s. Human rights dignitaries revealed the harmful nature of coffee in major production hubs of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The fair trade movement and certification launched in response to market flooding, which resulted in a higher supply of coffee than demand. Certification intended to relieve the financial burden and exploitation of coffee farmers.

By the early 2000s, the fair trade coffee movement was rebranded “sustainable coffee movement” by a budding group of young java enthusiasts. The sustainable coffee movement focused on ethical coffee beans sourced without social injustices and environmental pollution.

The Seedy Underbelly of the Coffee Industry

What makes coffee unsustainable? It’s simple – the domino effect of poverty on people and the environment. Sustainability is threefold– people, planet, economy– and all must coexist to create balance in the world.

Coffee is an agricultural commodity. Clearing tropical forests to make room for coffee plantations is a trend seen with many scalable food cultivations such as cow farming for beef. Deforestation, and the water-intensive practice of coffee processing, have led to rapid environmental degradation by the coffee industry. Poor land management is a primary factor in the contamination of local watersheds including rivers and streams, and eventually transboundary oceans.

So what about livelihoods? Through profiteering and a volatile market, coffee farmers and children are subject to exploitation, resulting in coffee cultivation being one of the poorest paid industries in the world. Low-salary farmers clear more forests, rely on child labor, and use environmentally unfriendly harvesting and production methods to cut costs– a perpetuating cycle. Coffee cultivation that utilizes an environmentally-minded and people-oriented fair trade market is inherently more sustainable than those that do not.

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Sustainable Coffee Farming for a Better Planet

Do you know how much water goes into making a cup of coffee? Every 125 ml cup of coffee used 140 liters (36 gallons) of freshwater. The traditional wet-milling process of de-pulping a coffee cherry involves using a continuous stream of water through a de-pulper for hours. This results in nearly 1200 liters (317 gallons) used in the de-pulping process alone. A single container of coffee equals a quarter-million liters (66,043 gallons) of water used.

Wastewater resulting from wet milling is the leading contaminant of local watersheds in coffee cultivation. Untreated waste from residual matter is the highest source of river pollution and contamination, creating a phenomenon called biological oxygen demand. This anomaly lowers the ability of aquatic animals and wildlife to extract oxygen from their habitats. The amount of oxygen needed to break down pollutants in viscous wastewater exceeds the natural ability of watersheds to purify water. This threatens all marine life and introduces bacteria harmful to human health. Oh, and top it off coffee wastewater also releases methane into the atmosphere (think cow poop)!

A Solution for Pollution

Scientists from around the globe have come to an agreement that sustainable farming must include a combination of different components to be effective. Sustainable targets hone in on proper land management and incorporating appropriate technological systems, including those used in water recycling and wastewater treatment. 

Water recycling is an efficient and cheap method aimed at reducing water usage by 90%. By recycling water and designing slow-drop irrigation systems to route water between many crops, farmers can maximize water resources during long periods of drought. This ultimately lowers the cost of input, allowing farmers to diversify assets to other areas of production.

Coffee waste is a form of renewable energy. Coffee wastewater is a basin of organic material, which could be used to generate energy via biogas during anaerobic decomposition in the treatment process. Coffee husks are a low-cost alternative to generating heat and electrical energy.

Coffee pulp and husks make excellent compost and animal feed. Mixed with animal manure, coffee waste makes a great addition to fertilizer. Fermented coffee pulp has nutritional characteristics and can be used as animal feed.

Though sustainable modes of production have been proven effective in coffee hubs globally, experts realize that more can be done to enhance these objectives. Luckily, advancements in coffee culture are playing a major role in mitigating the adverse effects of the coffee industry on people and the environment. New yet promising, localization of the coffee market may be enough to re-invent sustainability as we know it.

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Cultivating Coffee North of the Equator with FRINJ Coffee

What if ethically sourced coffee didn’t come from the rainforests of Brazil or the fertile mountains of Uganda? Can sustainable coffee culture take place right in our backyard? FRINJ coffee takes what is seemingly impossible and turns it into a reality.

FRINJ Coffee was born by organic farmer Jay Ruskey and Mark Gaskell, Ph.D., a California Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor. Nestled away in Goleta, Santa Barbara County in California, Ruskey created a hub that would set the stage for the future of sustainable California-grown coffee– Good Land Organics.

In 2002, Ruskey was given Costa Rican coffee seeds and rushed to discover whether he could successfully propagate these new plants. A pioneer at heart, Ruskey was proficient in cultivating rare tropical fruit at the University of California Cooperative Extension and the California Rare Fruit Grower. He’d tasked himself with the challenge of creating a coffee seed strong enough to withstand the climate of Southern California.

One year... two years… three years… Ruskey knew better than to rush his small plants into submission. He waited patiently as four years were required for juvenile coffee plants to bear fruit and another two for a viable yield. But, something was missing. What was he doing wrong? Determined, Ruskey spent the next decade refining his technique to achieve the highest quality coffee beans north of the equator.

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The Unicorn of Coffee Cultivation

Fermentation, milling, roasting, and dash of luck were vital components to accomplishing Ruskey’s mission. He and his team advanced their expertise on the evolution of coffee plants and their growth in the terroir of Southern California. By 2014, Ruskey’s coffee experiment had grown into fruition and his crop became the first California-grown coffee to ever be tested, coming in at 27th in the world.

“California’s long summers and short winters make the coffee fruit some of the sweetest in the world, replicating high mountain-grown coffees in the tropics.”

Just like that, Ruskey had succeeded in creating a crop whose genome was sequenced to be grown in Southern California. FRINJ would move to become the only high-end coffee business in the world with full control of every stage of cultivation to production. Ruskey and Gaskell’s coffee empire has since expanded, FRINJ has now comprised over 65 farms from Santa Barbara to San Diego.

FRINJ Coffee’s Commitment to Sustainability

Good Land Organics is certified organic through CCOF. All products grown on the farm are without pesticides and herbicides. Even more so, Good Land Organics implements an interwoven design amongst their crops. This enables each crop to share water, nutrients, and light while protecting one another from the elements. For example, a symbiotic relationship is created between coffee seeds planted alongside each other.  They share macro and micronutrients as well as irrigation systems.

California is a drought-ridden state. Ruskey and Gaskell built resilient food production systems in preparation for when climate disasters become worse…. much worse. They’re not only giving back to the land but hoping to teach other farmers how to do the same in a way that’s unique to their territory.

People and Farmers First

Good Land Organics and FRINJ Coffee operate under a Farmer First model (FFM) which has generated almost a 60% return to farmers. The FFM integrates a fair wage program, on-farm education, and coffee career-building programs available to employees. FRINJ is committed to collaboration with other farmers in Southern California through education on regenerative coffee farming.

FRINJ has also focused on introducing technology, like the genome project, that could enhance agricultural farming around the world, especially in areas heavily affected by climate change like Costa Rica or Ethiopia.

“The Arabica coffee genome, available in a public database, can freely be used by scientists worldwide to help farmers meet current and future growth challenges and improve their coffee production and lives.”

By introducing California-grown coffee into the market, FRINJ Coffee and Good Land Organics have responded to the coffee’s leading issues around the globe. Finally, you can enjoy that cup of coffee knowing every sip went towards a child’s education or temporary home for migratory birds. Ruskey and Gaskell may be on the path to making California the nation’s wine and coffee capital.

​​Want to buy your first batch of California-grown coffee? Visit FRINJ Coffee and select one or more of the six roasts!

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How to Find Your Next Favorite Sustainable Coffee Brand
Is it coffee fair trade or Rainforest Alliance Certified?

Fair Trade certification is an internationally recognized measurement of ethically sourced coffee. Fair Trade is a partnership between the producers and the marketers. Certification follows a standard to create premium quality products that promote environmental sustainability and empower fair labor practices.

Rainforest Alliance Certification provides a highly regulated audit of farms based on comprehensive criteria with an emphasis on biodiversity, human rights, and climate-smart growing methods. This certification helps farmers improve profitability and aims at using better sustainable farm management techniques.

Is it shade grown and bird-friendly?

The presence of vegetation amongst coffee plants reduces the need for pesticides and herbicides, supporting different tropical species of wildlife such as snakes, spiders, and migratory birds. Shade-grown coffee not only requires less water but allows farmers to build a diverse ecosystem resulting in a better-tasting brew. 

It reduces the risk of deforestation, leaving unadulterated habitats in place to allow flora and fauna to thrive in their natural environments. Shade trees also protect crops from excessive sun, harsh winds, and strong showers. Coffee labeled as “shade-grown” both boosts and protects biodiversity, soil integrity, and creates an efficient carbon sink.

Try some of our favorite ethical brands committed to sustainability. (* = certified)

  • Pachamama: organic*, Fair Trade*, bird-friendly, Rainforest Alliance*, shade grown

Why Should You Buy Ethical, Sustainable Coffee?

​​Sustainable coffee farming allows coffee producers to gain enough profit margin without causing harm to the environment. Consumerism is the number one driver of change in the modern world. Information across the globe is accessed in a matter of seconds at the push of a button. Consumer impact on the environment is no longer hearsay. We can digitally witness the impact of our choices whether it be floating plastic toothbrushes off the coasts of Indonesia or child laborers on a Nicaraguan coffee plantation.

Change your relationship with coffee. Change your experience with coffee. Change the world.

We can affect change now. In buying ethical coffee, you’re ensuring farmers in the poorest coffee-producing areas of Latin America, Asia, and Africa are paid fairly and can sustain the lives of their families and businesses. This contributes to the increased investments local farmers make in their communities which lead to healthier lives.

Happy farmers make a happy planet.

When you shop sustainably or local, you’re not just buying a cup of coffee, you’re investing in people and the planet.

Looking to get in the biz? Take these steps towards building a sustainable coffee empire!
  • Talk to the experts. As coffee cultivation makes its way to the northern hemisphere, FRINJ works alongside aspiring producers to deliver guidance on how to harvest and sell coffee.
  • Education is Power. Take part in a coffee production lecture at UC Davis hosted by FRINJ Coffee.
  • Join 1% for the Planet to donate 1% of your annual sales to the environment.