Did you know that of the 50 countries with the highest deforestation rates from 1990 to 1995, 37 were coffee producers? Widener University is helping to bring these forests back to life with its very own earth friendly coffee from cultivation to cup called, WU Brew. WU Brew is organically-grown coffee from Golden Valley Farms of West Chester, Pa and uses coffee beans harvested from Las Lajas, Costa Rica where Widener University faculty and students travel to learn about sustainable agriculture.
It was a chance encounter that brought together two men who are now helping facilitate change in the world of specialty coffee.
For the past several decades, John Sacharok of Golden Valley Farms, has been involved in the coffee business. During that time, he has seen the change that has occurred within the industry. “Over time, it has become more difficult to say, ‘This is great coffee,’” he explains. “It was painful to think that coffee – one of the greatest agricultural crops – was being destroyed due to efforts of many to create efficiencies and greater yields.” He knew change had to come. “I saw two options. I could switch the direction of our business and focus only on specialty coffee, I could sell out — because I just didn’t like seeing the destruction of the crop.”
That’s why when he met Dr. Steve Madigosky during a dinner prior to a hearing Michael Pollen speak, he knew that the two could make a difference.
For years, Dr. Madigosky, a professor of environmental science at Widener University, has worked with his students in the tropics, focusing on sustainable development work. By working on butterfly farms, students help on the day-to-day operations, focusing on different management plans to push the farms forward in terms of development. “I’ve always looked at this as a service class for looking at conservation and sustainable development. It promotes the idea of looking at how the students can impact people in different cultures in a different way. It focuses not only on service, but the learning principles behind the businesss, the science behind the agriculture and taking that knowledge and putting it into practice so the farmers can be helped,” he explains.
During their dinner, the two men spoke of their work, and their passion for change. And, as John explains, it quickly became clear to him, that the two of them could help make a change. “He was teaching students about the principles that were in line with the way I thought about coffee. It became apparent that together we can make a difference if we can get academia to work in concert with a business that understands the need for change.”
The two got serious and came up with a plan. They would convince those who already converted – those who care about the environment and understand that there is a way to make a difference, and those who are ready to act on those beliefs . . . the University.
“We knew we needed to get the university to buy sustainable coffee,” said John. “We talked to the administration, with Steve presenting from the academic standpoint, and I did so from a quality and historical perspective. It was amazing how the deans of the schools immediately knew that this made perfect sense – and, since I am an alumnus, there was even more of a connection with Widener University.”
Their presentation was passionate and spot on. John spoke of the fact that coffee is one of the most impactful agricultural products and also one in the most dire straights. “Not only environmental problems,” he said, “but there are also financial problems for all the small landholders. What better way to encourage the farmer to invest in their land to do the right thing, and in turn reward them with a better living way.”
The farm they looked to in order to launch the project was Las Lajas in Costa Rica.Las Lajas is once of the locations, John worked with. “All the coffees are shade grown, and the family is committed to growing coffee in a sustainable manner, so that the microclimate can flourish, and their business will as well,” he says. Further, John explains that “Las Lajas Is committed to bringing other farmers in the area into the fold,” says John.
From a student perspective, Dr. Madigoski has been taking students to the tropics for many years and is confident their the experience is enlightening and one that the students will remember for a long time. Dr. Madigosky took students and other faculty on an educational experience to Las Lajas to learn about how the organic coffee is grown – without pesticides and herbicides, and under shade trees to preserve bird habitats. The students and faculty helped the farmers with the harvest and gathered information for further efforts to help reverse damaging agricultural practices in Central America.
The most important part of the coffee project is that it truly is a win win for everyone involved,” Dr. Madigosky explains. “Sustainable development at its best transforms environments that have been modified for many years, and helps bring back some of the forests.”
Speaking of the impact on the students, Dr. Madigosky is confident of the impact. “Sometimes I wonder how many students I reach, but I know that those who have gone on the trips come back changed – they tell me.” He continues, “I know that these travel abroad experiences can be beneficial, and in this case, it is truly more impactful because, with coffee, they can see the impact of their consumer decisions. They see the real connection. By working in a place like this and then having coffee from the same farm they worked at show up at their university. It could be the same coffee they picked. It is extremely powerful.”
The collaborative efforts don’t stop with Widener University. According to Sacharok and Dr. Madigosky, a handful of other universities are looking to collaborate with Widener in the short term, and in the long term, the goal is for the similar projects to take hold throughout the university arena. “Our hope is that with many universities joining in. We’ll be able to make a change collectively on the state of the coffee in these regions,” says Dr. Madigosky. “Maybe in 10 to 15 years this whole project can be transformative for coffee farmers.”
Widener University is the only college that has its own coffee, and WU Brew is available for purchase online at Golden Valley Farms. Proceeds support research and service-learning opportunities for Widener students to collaborate with farmers in Las Lajas, Costa Rica. It also helps pay farmers a living wage and encourages them to produce coffee in an environmentally-friendly manner.