Wake up and smell the coffee … made in the United States

By Marcelo Teixeira

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Farmer David Armstrong recently finished planting what is likely the most challenging crop his family has ever cultivated since his ancestors started farming in 1865 – 20,000 coffee trees.

Except Armstrong is not in the tropics of Central America – he is in Ventura, California, just 60 miles (97 km) away from downtown Los Angeles.

“I guess now I can say I am a coffee farmer!” he said, after planting the last seedlings of high-quality varieties of arabica coffee long cultivated in sweltering equatorial climates.

Coffee is largely produced in the Coffee Belt, located between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, where countries such as Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia and Vietnam have provided the best climate for coffee trees, which need constant heat to survive.

Climate change is altering temperatures around the globe. That is harming crops in numerous locales, but opening up possibilities in other regions. That includes California and Florida, where farmers and researchers are looking at growing coffee.

Armstrong recently joined a group of farmers taking part in the largest-ever coffee growing endeavor in the United States. The nation is the world’s largest consumer of the beverage but produces just 0.01% of the global coffee crop – and that was all in Hawaii, one of only two U.S. states with a tropical climate, along with southern Florida.

Traditional producers of coffee such as Colombia, Brazil and Vietnam have suffered from the impact of extreme heat and changing rain patterns. Botanists and researchers are looking to plant hardier crop varieties for some of those nations’ coffee growing regions.

Top producer Brazil is going through the worst drought in over 90 years. That was compounded by a series of unexpected frosts, which damaged about 10% of the trees, hurting coffee production this year and next.

CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’

“We are getting to 100,000 trees,” said Jay Ruskey, founder and chief executive of Frinj Coffee, a company that offers farmers interested in coffee growing a partnership package including seedlings, post-harvest processing and marketing.

Ruskey says he started trial planting of coffee in California many years ago but told few about it. He said he only “came out of the closet as a coffee farmer” in 2014, when Coffee Review, a publication that evaluates the best coffees every crop year, reviewed his coffee, giving his batch of caturra arabica coffee a score of 91 points out of 100.

Frinj is still a small coffee company targeting high-end specialty buyers. Frinj sells bags of 5 ounces (140 grams) for $80 each on its website. As a comparison, 8-ounce packages of Starbucks Reserve, the top-quality coffee sold by the U.S. chain, sell for $35 each. Frinj produced 2,000 pounds (907 kg) of dry coffee this year from eight farms.

“We are still young, still growing in terms of farms, post-harvest capabilities,” said Ruskey. “We are trying to keep the price high, and we are selling everything we produce.” The venture is already profitable,” he said.

The company has been growing slowly since, with Armstrong’s 7,000-acre (2,833-hectare) Smith Hobson Ranch one of the latest, and largest, to partner with Ruskey.

“I have no experience in coffee,” said Armstrong, who typically grows citrus fruits and avocados, among other crops.

To boost his chances of success, he installed a new irrigation system to increase water use efficiency and has planted the trees away from parts of the ranch that have been hit by frosts in the past.

Coffee uses 20% less water than most fruit and nut trees, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Water has become scarce in California after recent droughts and forest fires. Many farmers are switching crops to deal with limits on water use.

Giacomo Celi, sustainability director at Mercon Coffee Group, one of the world’s largest traders of green coffee, said the risks of cultivating coffee in new areas are high.

“It seems more logical to invest in new coffee varieties that could be grown in the same current geographies,” he said.

FLORIDA HOPES

As the climate warms in the southern United States, researchers at the University of Florida (UF) are working with a pilot plantation to see if trees will survive in that state.

Scientists have just moved seedlings of arabica coffee trees grown in a greenhouse to the open, where they will be exposed to the elements, creating the risk that plants could be killed by the cold when the winter comes.

“It is going to be the first time they will be tested,” said Diane Rowland, a lead researcher on the project.

Rowland said researchers are planting coffee trees close to citrus, an intercropping technique used in other parts of the world as larger trees help hold winds and provide shade to coffee trees.

The project, however, is about more than just coffee cultivation. Alina Zare, an artificial intelligence researcher at UF’s College of Engineering, said scientists are also trying to improve how to study plants’ root systems. That, in turn, could help in the selection of optimal coffee varieties for the region in the future.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. weather agency, annual mean temperatures were at least 2 degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 degrees Celsius) above average for more than half the time in the long-term measuring stations across the United States’ southeastern region in 2020.

Florida experienced record heat last year, with average temperatures of 28.3 C (83 F) in July, and 16.4 C (61.6 F) in January. That is hotter than Brazil’s Varginha area in Minas Gerais state, the largest coffee-producing region in the world, which averages 22.1 C (71.8 F) in its hottest month and 16.6 C (61.9 F) in the coldest.

“With climate change, we know many areas in the world will have difficulties growing coffee because it is going to be too hot, so Florida could be an option,” Rowland said.

(Reporting by Marcelo Teixeira in New York; Editing by David Gaffen and Matthew Lewis)

More than half a million Californian customers may face power outages

More than half a million Californian customers may face power outages
By Subrat Patnaik and Rich McKay

(Reuters) – More than half a million homes and businesses in California could lose power this week as utilities including Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E)  and Southern California Edison(SCE) cut off electricity as a preventive measure against wildfires.

Over 308,000 customers in seven counties, including Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Ventura in southern California, are under the Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) consideration, Southern California Edison said.

Shutoffs from SCE could start early Thursday.

Meanwhile, PG&E has shut off power in 15 counties, affecting about 178,000 customers in those areas. The company said additional power shutoffs for parts of San Mateo County and Kern County were expected to begin at about 1 a.m. (0800 GMT) on Thursday, affecting more than 1,000 customers.

San Diego Gas & Electric Co has also identified more than 41,000 customers under PSPS consideration, but has not implemented any power shutoffs on Thursday.

Forecaster Marc Chenard said the worst of the winds would arrive on Thursday afternoon and into Friday.

“It looks like at its worst, southern California will see wind gusts of 55 mph. Down in some of the coastal areas the winds could reach 75 mph later today,” he said.

Power lines could be knocked down and start fires among dry trees and vegetation, according to earlier forecasts.

Bankrupt Californian power producer PG&E cut off electricity to more than 730,000 homes and workplaces in northern California earlier this month to try to reduce wildfire risks posed by extremely windy and dry weather.

Chenard added that northern California could experience dangerous wind gusts of up to 45 mph. “This is not going to abate until at least this weekend.”

Wildfires were also growing through the night in Sonoma County, about 65 miles north of San Francisco, which is popular with tourists visiting wine-producing areas in California.

By early Thursday morning, the fire had grown to 7,000 acres, and more evacuations were ordered overnight in and near Geyserville, officials said. No injuries had been reported.

Evacuation warnings were issued before midnight in some communities as the wind-driven fires moved toward tourist towns including Healdsburg, officials said.

(Reporting by Subrat Patnaik in Bengaluru and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Dale Hudson)

Thousands in California flee homes ahead of possible mudslides

California wildfire fight aided by better weather

(Reuters) – Thousands of Southern Californians fled their homes on Monday as a powerful rain storm that could cause flash floods and trigger mudslides soaked steep slopes where a series of intense wildfires burned off vegetation last month.

Heavy downpours that could produce more than 1 inch (2.5 cm) of rain per hour were expected through Tuesday evening, forcing officials to order or advise Ventura, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles county residents who live near where wildfires burned to evacuated their homes.

“Recent burn areas will be especially vulnerable where dangerous mud and debris flows are possible,” the National Weather Service said in a statement.

Several December wildfires, included a blaze known as the Thomas Fire which was the largest in the state’s history, burned away vegetation that holds the soil in place and baked a waxy layer into the earth that prevents water from sinking deeply into the ground.

About 30,000 residents were under evacuation orders or advisories on Monday, ABC news reported.

“I’m just tired. I can’t seem to get my life kick-started,” Teri Lebow, whose Montecito, California was damaged by the wildfires, told the Los Angeles Times.

The storm system was expected to produce 4 inches to 7 inches (10 to 18 cm) in the foothills and mountains with 9 inches (23 cm) in isolated areas. Three inches (7 cm) to two feet (61 cm) of snow was also forecast for higher elevations, the National Weather Service said.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

California wildfire crews gain edge as last evacuation orders lifted

Firefighters keep watch on the Thomas wildfire in the hills and canyons outside Montecito, California, U.S., December 16, 2017.

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Crews battling to subdue the remnants of a sprawling Southern California wildfire gained more ground on Thursday after a resurgence of winds proved weaker than expected, allowing officials to lift all remaining evacuation orders and warnings.

The so-called Thomas fire, California’s second-largest on record, has charred 272,600 acres (110,317 hectares) of coastal mountains, foothills and canyons across Ventura and Santa Barbara counties northwest of Los Angeles, fire officials said.

The fire’s spread was largely halted this week as crews extended safety buffer lines around most of its perimeter, hacking away thick chaparral and brush before it could ignite and torching some vegetation in controlled-burning operations.

Containment of the fire grew to 65 percent on Thursday, up from 60 percent a day earlier.

Much of the progress was made during three days in which diminished winds, cooler temperatures and higher humidity levels allowed firefighters to go on the attack against a blaze that had kept them on the defensive for the better part of two weeks.

A new bout of strong winds had been forecast to accelerate to 50 miles per hour (80 km per hour) on Thursday morning, stoking extreme fire conditions again, but turned out to be less forceful than expected, authorities said.

“We didn’t really see the winds that were predicted,” said Brandon Vaccaro, a spokesman for the firefighting command. Containment lines already carved around populated areas “held really well,” he said.

More than 1,000 homes and other structures were destroyed and well over 100,000 people were forced to flee their dwellings at the height of the fire storm, but abandoned communities were gradually reopened to residents this week.

On Thursday, authorities canceled the last evacuation notices still in effect for Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

Only one fatality directly related to the fire has been reported, a firefighter who succumbed to burns and smoke inhalation in the line of duty last Thursday.

As the fire threat waned, the number of personnel assigned to fight the blaze has been scaled back to about 4,700, down from 8,500 at the fire’s peak.

In terms of burned landscape, the Thomas fire ranks a close second to California’s largest wildfire on record, the 2003 Cedar blaze in San Diego County, which consumed 273,246 acres (110,579 hectares) and killed 15 people.

The Thomas fire erupted Dec. 4 and was fanned by hot, dry Santa Ana winds blowing with rare hurricane force from the eastern deserts, spreading flames across miles of Southern California’s rugged, drought-parched coastal terrain.

Forecasts called for a return of mild Santa Ana gusts late on Thursday, “but it shouldn’t be anything that really challenges us,” Vaccaro said.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has estimated the cost of fighting the blaze at more than $167 million. The cause has not been determined.

The Thomas fire came two months after a spate of wind-driven blazes in Northern California’s wine country incinerated several thousand homes and killed more than 40 people, ranking as the deadliest rash of wildfires, and one of the most destructive, in state history.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Chris Reese and Leslie Adler)