PICTURED: From left: Patrick, Ian and Kai Wallace, prepping soil on Rincon Mountain. (Photo submitted)
by Kimberly Rivers
Ian and Kai Wallace are diving into commercial farming for the first time. As if that wasn’t challenging enough, they are also choosing a crop that is not typically grown in California: coffee.
“The fact that it could be grown in the continental United States, not in the tropics, is just cool,” said Ian, 26.
The Wallaces are currently elbow deep in their project, planting over 800 young coffee trees on Rincon Mountain in the hills that line the western coast of Ventura County, near the Santa Barbara County line. Their planting team is made up of family members including parents, some cousins in high school and Ian’s brother, Patrick, who came from South Carolina to help.
“When the marine layer is above the city [of Ventura], we are in the clouds,” said Kai, 27. “It’s almost raining.” Their ranch name, Rancho Vista Del Nube, is inspired by the thick fog that rolls in and envelops the mountains. Nube is the Spanish word for cloud.
The Wallaces hope their new endeavor will allow them to have a sustainable organic homestead on Rincon Mountain. They are counting on the area’s cloud moisture and humidity to support the young coffee trees being planted. When they spoke to the VCReporter on July 24, 550 young trees had already been planted in Carpinteria and they were in the midst of preparing the land on Rincon Mountain for 885 more trees. Over the next year, they plan to put in another 3,400 coffee trees on another Rincon Mountain slope that needs to be cleared.
“That slope on the mountain is completely wild now,” Ian explained.
In about five years, the coffee trees should be producing a regular harvest; the trees can produce for about 50 years.
“Our land is a fully established avocado orchard. Half of it burned in the Thomas Fire,” Ian said. That portion, now open field, will be home to the first coffee plants. The avocado trees left after the fire will be pruned to allow sunlight through and coffee will be planted in and among those avocado trees. “We’ll keep the avocado trees tighter,” in terms of pruning. “We hear that is better for avocado production as well. We are learning about both crops at the same time.”
Ian and Kai met in San Diego. She was a dog trainer; he was an East Coast transplant with a business administration degree. They both knew that they wanted to do something unique, built around a lifestyle that nature, plants and being outside.
“We talked briefly about vegetables, doing a CSA, farm-cart type of thing . . . but that is a lot of work and it never becomes less,” said Kai.
Ian read about Frinj coffee, a specialty coffee company based in Santa Barbara which roasts beans supplied by growers up and down the Central Coast. Doing some research, Kai learned that as the coffee trees get established and “hardier, the workload goes down, profit goes up.” With vegetables you are constantly “replanting, harvesting and replanting. We like the idea of an orchard, trees that live and continue to grow.”
They are frank about their inexperience with farming and the mistakes they’ve made. For example, they initially assembled the irrigation system incorrectly, leading to leaks at every joint. The whole thing had to be taken apart and reassembled.
“We are just kids that don’t know what we are doing, we are figuring it out,” laughed Ian. “We are definitely learning as we go.”
Both were quick to say they are getting much needed help and support from Frinj, founded by farmer and agronomist Jay Ruskey. He partnered with agricultural researchers at University of California, Davis, to develop a method of growing coffee in California that can compete with coffee grown in tropical regions.
Lance and Susan Frautschi of Lemon Ridge Ranch in Somis planted coffee trees about four years ago, adding to their lemon orchards and supplying beans to Frinj. The choice to add coffee was a diversification step in the wake of the HLB citrus disease that is now confirmed in Ventura County.
A Frinj farm advisor helped advise the Wallaces on their site plans, irrigation plans and other details. The 15-page plan “became our bible, everything you need is in there,” Kai said. If they need help or advice, they call or text Frinj.
While Rancho Vista Del Nube is starting off as a conventional growing operation, Ian said within three years, by the time the coffee beans are harvested, they will transition to organic. Kai said the initial conventional approach was primarily an economic decision, and based on giving the young trees that will be growing far from their native habitat the benefit of formulated soil amendments and nutrients.
“The soil on the mountain is higher in pH than the trees like,” Kai said. A specially formulated Frinj soil amendment will be placed in every hole after being mixed with native soil.
“It’s a lot easier to add conventional fertilizer to set up for success in the first three years,” Kai explained, “[when the trees] are most fragile and adapting to an environment they are not originally made for.” The Wallaces had toured another farm that started out as organic, finding that “there is a higher cost and more maintenance up front. We want to make sure we get to the third year. We don’t have a ton of money and this is a big risk.”
“The biggest thing is water, they need to stay moist all the time, but not wet because they will drown,” Kai continued.
Wind and pests such as gophers also threaten the young coffee crops.
“And we are afraid of the peacocks,” said Ian with a chuckle. Apparently a neighbor has a bevy and the pretty birds can be quite destructive to young plants.
Mulching and weed control are part of the ongoing maintenance of the trees; the Wallaces don’t intend to use much pesticide. They aren’t going high tech with moisture monitoring.
“Stick your finger in the soil, walk up the hill, open the valve and wish the water goes through,” Ian said.
Their goal for the July 31 weekend is to get everything prepped for planting to start on Tuesday, Aug. 4. They have a plan to lay out everything so that each tree is planted and done at the first pass, no going back to stake it, mulch it etc. “The plants will be done as we go,” said Ian. “We are hugging all the plants,” he said, laughing again. “Please grow.”
Looking ahead, the Wallaces know where there will be a lot of work.
“I really enjoyed pruning all the avocados. Pruning is a big part of the labor to set yourself up well for growing sturdy trees, making sure [the beans] are easy to pick,” said Kai.
“It looks really good to see 800 pink flags and I know there’s going to be 800 trees there,” said Ian. “It’s our livelihood going forward. It’s exciting.”