Ripening Whittier’s Coffee garden with avocados

Ripening Whittier’s Coffee garden with avocados

Nathan Tolfa
NEWS EDITOR

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Whittier College Associate Professor of Environmental Science Cynzia Fissore and former Professor Natale Zappia, with assistance from organic farmer Scott Murray, finished planting a coffee garden on Whittier’s campus at the end of May 2019. Zappia has since departed from the College, but Fissore is still taking the project into its second phase: the planting and cultivation of avocado trees.

The coffee trees were given to Whittier by California State Polytechnic University, Pomona from their greenhouse and nursery. “We are currently part of this collaboration with our colleagues at Cal Poly Pomona,” said Fissore. “They grow the coffee plants and they gave us 64 plants of 16 different varieties.” This variety of plants is uncommon for a coffee garden. According to Fissore, farmers usually only grow three or four varieties, but as Whittier is growing the plants as part of an experiment, the College does not have to worry about productivity. 

The project is a collaboration with Cal Poly Pomona, who have planted the same crops in the same fertilizer in different microclimates, and will compare soil and plant samples with Whittier.

Right now the garden looks a bit like an assembly of Charlie Brown sheet ghosts, since the coffee plants are currently being housed under a special type of white cloth, and are encircled by chicken wire. “[The] cloth that we put around [the trees] is very frequently used in agriculture,” said Fissore. She elaborated that solar radiation is able to penetrate the cloth, meaning the plants can still complete photosynthesis, while being protected from potential damage by direct sunlight and strong winds. The chicken wire cage protects the plants from animals and, like the cloth, protects against the wind.

Now that phase one — the “implementation” phase, during which the coffee trees were planted — is complete, Fissore is looking forward to phases two and three. Phase two will be the addition of avocado trees to the garden. “In coffee production, locally, coffee is planted with existing avocado orchards,” said Fissore. West coast avocado farmers often grow a second crop on their plots, and, as coffee is a high-value crop, it makes financial sense to grow the two plants together. The avocado trees also act as a kind of shield, protecting the other crops from wind and the elements with their size. In Whittier’s garden, the avocado trees will be kept to six or seven feet tall, but, according to Fissore, they will still provide some shade, and protection for the coffee trees. There is a second, historical reason for growing avocados. “The very same plot used to be an avocado orchard in the ‘20s,” said Fissore.

Phase three of the project entails planting native plants around the edges of the garden. “Native plants are important because they attract pollinators,” said Fissore. “They also cover the ground so we don’t have to constantly be weeding the plot, and they create a beautiful color pallette on top of that because they bloom year-round.” 

Fissore hopes that the garden’s utility will extend beyond the initial collaboration with Cal Poly Pomona. “We hope that this place will be . . .  a place for the community and a place where faculty from other disciplines, not just the natural sciences, can [use] the potential . . . it’s a space that [faculty] can use to create modules or create a conversation with their students around it.”

“We are well connected with local companies that deal with coffee, and they expressed already interest in seeing where our work goes,” said Fissore. She is also looking into ways to welcome other disciplines into the garden; she plans to invite students from economic studies to participate in coffee production. “I will open the door to students interested in business, marketing, economics, to really understand, for instance, the issues and the potential associated with the supply chain,” said Fissore, “from the production of the coffee up to the harvesting and the roasting and the marketing of it.”

Fissore believes that in the coming months and years, the garden will develop into something beautiful. “I know it doesn’t look like much right now, but one has to trust the process,” she said. “It will look really great, and it will be such a nice place to study, interact, and be curious about the California that’s around us.”