The Success & Struggles of Growing Coffee at Home in America
When I began this coffee business, my goal was to reveal the wonders and incredible flavors of specialty coffee. I originally only shared with family and friends, but the business bloomed, and I was lucky enough to send beans to coffee connoisseurs all over the United States. My day is always made when I receive positive messages from customers. They often say how much they enjoy the nuances and enhanced flavor notes of our coffees. An email recently appeared in my inbox from a loyal customer that reminded me why coffee is more than just a delicious cup. The meticulous process of producing even a single cup of coffee is often overlooked. Coffee in all of its stages instills patience, perseverance, and a sense of community. This email was a refreshing reminder of that, and with his permission, I am happy to share his story with you...
“I thought you would appreciate one of my hobbies other than home roasting. This introduced me to home roasting in 2016. About 7 or 8 years ago, a neighbor from Costa Rica gave me a twig of a coffee plant as a gift. He was in his 80’s at the time and talked about the plantation he had down there. On a trip that year, he brought back a few beans and was able to get them to grow. We lived in an apartment at the time, and I had plants on the patio, he called my farm. I guess he saw I had a fairly good green thumb and gifted me with the plant.
Over the first year or so, that plant was like a child of mine. I grew it in a pot and transplanted it as it grew into bigger pots, nursed it, watered it, and brought it in if it was too cold. My neighbor would also peek over the patio to see how “his” plant was doing and making sure I took care of it. In 2014, we moved to a house, the plant was in a large pot by then. The first year I left it in the pot. The winters here in the Inland Empire outside L.A. does not get too cold, but a few days creep around 30 degrees. I was able to move the plant into the garage for the night. Three years ago, it outgrew the pot, so I put it in a raised box, and it flourished, and in 2017 it bloomed.
In 2018, we harvested about a cup of beans, and my wife researched on how to process the beans. Since she is from El Salvador, she had a vague idea on how to process them. The first crop was not bad. We enjoyed a few cups using the pour-over method to really enjoy it. The 2019 crop did not do so well. We had a few days of cold weather and frost that killed the crop. The pictures attached are the new blooms for next year’s crop, I plan to build a makeshift greenhouse around it to survive next winters cold weather. I thought I would share with you the first blooms of the harvest. I know the flavor comes from many factors, climate, soil, etc. Hopefully, next years will come from a passion for coffee, the enjoyment of a good cup and an appreciation for those who provide us from the fruits of their labor.
My neighbor stays in touch, and his first question is, “how is the “plant?” He has given me great advice on how to nurture the soil and is amazed it yielded me with coffee. I hope to share next year’s crop with him. Thanks again. I appreciate Sagebrush for providing me with a source of fantastic coffee, in between my annual harvests of 4 to 5 cups of coffee. LOL.”
There were a few thoughts that crossed my mind when reading his message. 1. It takes a lot of determination to grow coffee in your backyard or patio. I know for a fact that I do not have the required patience, 2. Coffee has the unique ability to connect people from all walks of life, and 3. There is a reason why coffee is rarely grown in the United States. As he mentioned in the email, many factors go into the flavor and overall success of coffee harvesting.
Coffee production, even in the most perfect environment, can be incredibly fickle. A crop that was successful one season can suddenly become undrinkable the next. The coffee plant is a wimp in the plant world. Extreme temperatures on either end of the spectrum can cause the plant to die. Recently, coffee harvesting has trickled its way into the U.S., specifically by a group of farmers in Southern California. The idea that coffee is being grown in our backyard is an exciting prospect, but how does it compare to the majority of coffee grown in Latin America and Africa?
The significant difference between coffee grown in the United States and coffee harvested in the traditional “coffee belt” is the climate. Rainfall, elevation, and warm, humid weather are three of the most critical factors locations in Latin America and Africa have. Coffee growers in the United States outside of Hawaii do not have access to these climate factors to ensure consistent, healthy crops. As an example, regions in the “coffee belt” can expect 40 to 60 inches of rain consistently. Some areas can receive up to 100 inches of rain. California, on the other hand, receives 15 to 30 inches. That is a lot of extra water farmers have to make up for. It probably does not help with the water shortage California is already experiencing.
Weather isn’t the only barrier growers in the United States encounter when competing against imported coffee. There is a large gap between what workers in the United States expect, and what workers in locations overseas can expect. Coffee farmers in California would assume to be paid $10 an hour, while workers in Latin America will do the same work for $4 a day. To make a profit, farmers in the United States have to post much higher prices for their beans. I have seen Californian coffee beans priced as high as $75/5oz. Only the wealthy and die-hard coffee fanatics would buy coffee at that price point. These beans cannot usually compete in price or flavor with more traditionally grown beans in Latin America and Africa.
The fact that this customer’s coffee plant was able to produce a drinkable cup is highly commendable, and I applaud his dedication and passion for coffee. I wish him continued success with his coffee plant. Who knows, he may be a pioneer in harvesting patio crops. I hope to continue selling coffee beans to passionate coffee roasters, consumers, and now growers for years to come!