Grow Your Own

Colleges in Pennsylvania teach students about sustainable agriculture and keep the coffee brewing.

September 26, 2014

A partnership between a Pennsylvania university, a coffee roaster and a Costa Rican farm is trying to support sustainable agriculture while giving students their java fix with the sale of organic, fair trade coffee that doesn't come from a certain well-known chain.

At Widener University, where the Cultivation to Cup program was launched, the sale of WU Brew coffee beans helps pay for research equipment and associated travel costs for students and faculty to conduct research on the environment and climate of the Las Lajas farm in Costa Rica.

Since Widener launched its specialty coffee on Earth Day in April 2013, three other colleges -- Lycoming College, Misericordia University and Slippery Rock University -- have joined the collaborative.

The program is the brain child of John Sacharok, founder of Golden Valley Farms Coffee Roasters in West Chester, Penn.; and Stephen Madigosky, environmental science professor at the nearby Widener University.

Sacharok, a Widener alumnus, was searching for better-tasting coffee. Madigosky had 20 years of experience studying the tropics in Latin America, and he was looking for a way to engage universities in sustainable development in the region. “We started finishing each other’s sentences,” Sacharok said of the first time he and Madigosky talked about their ideas. “That doesn’t happen often in business meetings.”

At Widener, the program is now a three-credit course taught by Madigosky. Students learn about sustainable development and explore ways that farmers can use biological resources to earn a living in a way that will protect the environment – and their income source – for future generations.

As a part of the course, a handful of students have traveled to Costa Rica to harvest and process beans for WU Brew and collect data for research projects. In January, Madigosky hopes to take up to 12 more students out of the 30 enrolled in his fall class.

After years of traveling in Central and South America, Sacharok found that the best-tasting coffee beans were produced on shade-grown farms, which often also sell organic and fair trade products.

Historically, all coffee beans were grown under the shade of canopy trees, Sacharok said. But high demand for the product led to the growth of sun-grown coffee, which is quicker but more harmful to the environment because it requires deforestation. That practice, along with others in the coffee industry, is destroying natural habitats that are rich in biological diversity, Madigosky said.

“If we can dip into the industry in a way to start repairing, or restructuring, the way we do things, that’s what I’m most interested in,” he said.

Madigosky said colleges and universities are in a unique position to help find solutions for this type of environmental problem, with faculty members who think along parallel lines and students with a lot of creativity.

In this partnership, students get research experience, farmers have access to data-based solutions they otherwise couldn't afford, and Sacharok can sell a quality product that’s not harming the environment. Most important, perhaps, is that students get to work alongside Latin American community members, Madigosky said.

"They learn up close and personal how their consumer decisions here in the U.S. influence what goes on in other parts of the globe,” he said.

WU Brew is sold on campus at the bookstore and the cafeteria as well as in a few coffee machines, Madigosky said. The university is working with an on-campus Java City to sell WU Brew there as well.

The other colleges involved can choose a farm anywhere in Latin America to work with, though Cultivation to Cup recommends those colleges without a strong science department start out on the farm Widener is working on to learn about the process.

Lycoming and Misericordia started selling Golden Valley Farms products on campus this year, while they work to develop their own brews to launch next spring, Sacharok said. Lycoming College wants to work with a farm in the Dominican Republic, and Misericordia decided last week to spend a year on the same farm at Widener, Sacharok said. Slippery Rock hasn’t picked a farm to produce its product yet, but it’s already named its coffee Rock Roast.

“It’s an interesting cooperative venture between the private and higher education sectors, which typically don’t happen very well,” Madigosky said.

The four colleges are paving their own road with coffee at a time when Starbucks seems to be researching further expansion on campuses. The coffee giant announced last month that it’s testing mobile trucks on three campuses this fall – James Madison University, Arizona State University and Coastal Carolina University. (Starbucks has locations on about 300 college campuses, according to Bloomberg News.)

Students on these four campuses aren’t in the type of urban setting that has a Starbucks or other coffee chain on every corner, so there’s less competition for the universities’ brews.

But Sacharok said much of the profit from WU Brew hasn’t come from single-serving cups on campus, but instead from consumers, likely alumni and faculty, purchasing 12-ounce bags of coffee.

At $13.99 a bag, the product is about twice as expensive as the average grocery store bag. But that price includes $4.35 per pound for the farmers, a dramatic increase over what most coffee farmers earn, Sacharok said.  

After Golden Valley takes out its packaging fee, the rest of the profit is returned to the university to be put into student projects, which Sacharok thinks has helped sales.

“This is a way for alumni to get a reward,” he said. “They get great-tasting coffee and make a little gift to the school.”

And Sacharok will stake his coffee credibility on the quality of the coffee, he said, adding that it’s on par with national brands, if not better.

Cultivation to Cup has received interest from about a dozen colleges, including some outside Pennsylvania, Sacharok said.

One way the project could expand to other campuses would be with the help of the food services provider at one of the colleges already involved, Sacharok said.

Metz Culinary Management, which runs the dining halls at Misericordia University, recently approached Sacharok, saying it was impressed with the Cultivation to Cup idea and wanted to introduce the concept at other colleges it works with.

But launching the program at more schools likely won’t be quick and easy. Each college has different contracts and purchasing policies, and food services are managed by a variety providers.

“A large measure of our success will be the number of universities that join us and what they end up accomplishing on the ground [in Latin America],” Madigosky said.

Coffee is the common factor for all the colleges’ programs, but Madigosky doubts that any two projects will be identical. In the future, there’s also potential to bring other consumer products into the picture.


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