How Does Your Java Grow?

By Sam Starnes


If you’re like most adults, you’re a coffee drinker.

A recent survey showed that 83 percent of Americans consume coffee, and 63 percent drink it every single day.

Globally, coffee consumption is equally pervasive, making it the world's most widely traded agricultural commodity with annual revenues high into the billions.

Among natural commodities, only oil has more value.

Student Holding Coffee BeansThe ubiquity and profitability of the coffee business are probably no surprise to you. But, have you ever paused to ponder where that aromatic liquid swirling in your cup originated?

The path from the coffee fruit of more than fifty nations to your cup can be long, winding, and often a bit obscure. "With most coffees, you have no idea what you are drinking," said Frank Baldassarre, a 1994 graduate of Widener who is a principal in Golden Valley Farms Coffee Roasters in West Chester, Pennsylvania. The company founded by Baldassarre's fellow Widener alumnus John Sacharok sells about 600,000 pounds of organic coffee annually.

And there are distinct consequences to coffee consumption you may not have considered. Dr. Stephen Madigosky, a Widener professor of environmental science, said that growth in the worldwide demand for coffee has encouraged practices that harm humans and the planet. "Throughout the developing world, rural coffee farmers are enticed into commercially producing coffee in the most expeditious, environmentally unfriendly manners possible," he said.

Madigosky, who has conducted research in Central and South America where much coffee is produced, said the demand over the last 30 to 40 years has changed the way coffee is farmed. Although coffee evolved historically by growing under a canopy of shade trees, often in rain forests, most coffee farmers now cut down forests for faster production by growing sun-grown coffee. The sungrown method is faster with higher output but it requires heavy use of herbicides and pesticides.

One coffee-producing country that has been severely affected by these farming methods is Costa Rica. "Much of Costa Rica looks like Iowa for the mass production of crops," Madigosky said. He said that the trend is reversible, and that responsible production of coffee can over time restore environments that have been damaged. "We need to convert these areas back into forests."

But doing so requires paying farmers a fair wage for growing coffee in environmentally responsible manners and educating consumers on the production methods of coffee. If you purchase sun-grown coffee, you contribute to deforestation and use of chemicals. "Coffee consumers often don't realize the choices that they make have great impact all over the world," Baldassarre said. "Your choices do have an impact."

Enter WU Brew—a Widener-branded, organic coffee harvested under shade trees in Costa Rica and roasted by Golden Valley Farms Coffee Roasters. The coffee brings together Widener alumni, students, faculty, and a Costa Rican coffee farm who share the ultimate goal of changing the way coffee is produced. Although at $13.99 per bag WU Brew is more expensive than many other coffees, the price tag of every purchase includes a financial gift to Widener's environmental science department. The program sends students to help harvest the coffee and learn about sustainable methods, as well as benefits farmers using these sustainable methods by paying them fairly.

Sacharok, Baldassarre, and Madigosky don't plan to stop with Widener—they are hopeful to expand the program to other colleges that would also participate and share in the research and benefits. "Our goal is to begin applying agricultural practices that will safeguard farmers, consumers, and ultimately the environment," Madigosky said. "We seek to change the mentality of how one of the most important crops on our planet is produced."

The Genesis of WU Brew

The seeds for WU Brew were planted when Madigosky met John Sacharok at a reception following the speech of food writer Michael Pollan at the Philadelphia Speakers Series (Widener has sponsored the annual series for the past decade). The professor and the coffee entrepreneur struck up a conversation and found that they shared common concerns about healthier and environmentally friendly production of coffee.

Madigosky, a Widener professor since 1989, has been involved in promoting conservation and sustainable development projects throughout Latin America and is the director of research at the Amazon Conservatory of Tropical Studies in Peru.

Sacharok, an accounting major who started at PMC Colleges in 1971 and ultimately graduated from Widener in 1980, worked for the convenience store chain Wawa Inc., in the 70s and 80s, rising to the position of director of purchasing and pricing. He earned his degree part time, often through evening classes. He grew close to Grahame Wood, Wawa's chief executive who was grandson of the company's founder. Wood, a member of Widener Board of Trustees, "was like my father," Sacharok said. "He paid my tuition." Under Wood, Sacharok was responsible for introducing coffee into Wawa stores in the 70s—a product that is now a trademark of the robust chain—and helped the company to expand. "My thumbprints are all over Wawa," he said.

Wood died in 1982, and Sacharok left Wawa in 1986 to launch Golden Valley Farms Coffee Roasters. As sun-grown coffee became a more prominent production method, Sacharok focused the company on selling only organic, shadegrown, bird-friendly coffee bought at values equaling Fair Trade or better prices. In addition to Costa Rica, they import and roast coffee beans from 18 other countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Ethiopia, and Guatemala. Sacharok says he's not only drawn to the coffee he buys for its ethical and environmentally responsible production methods, but because organic, shade-grown coffee is "the best tasting coffee on the planet. The process develops the flavor much more fully."

After their first chance meeting, Madigosky and Sacharok continued their discussion and the framework for WU Brew was born. They planned for the beans for the coffee to come from Las Lajas in Costa Rica, one of only two farms in the country that produces shade-grown coffee, and the only one growing it organically, and roasted at Golden Valley Farms Coffee Roasters' warehouse in West Chester. The ten-person operation is very much a family business (for example, Baldassarre who joined the company two years ago after a career in banking, is married to Sacharok's sister, Maryann, also a principal in the company). They are donating a portion of every bag of coffee sold under the WU Brew label to Widener to fund research trips by students and faculty. "This project is a win-win situation on many levels," Sacharok said. "We help students in their research, the earth benefits from sustainable practices, and the Costa Rican farmers earn a wage that allows them to grow coffee in an environmentally responsible manner."

An Eye-Opening Experience
Widener juniors Peter Pulhac and Katie Randolph will never forget the panoramic scenery on their first rocky ride down a rain-rutted road through the mountains to reach the tropical farm. "It was a huge valley of coffee beans," Randolph said. Pulhac added, "You could just see green everywhere."

The two environmental science majors were among six students and two faculty members who spent 10 days in January on the farm. They were the first of what Madigosky hopes will be many students to delve into the research and reality of coffee production in Costa Rica.

Randolph's and Pulhac's research contrasted organic, shade-grown coffee with conventional coffee farms where pesticide and herbicides are used and natural forests are cleared. "The shade-grown looks more like a paradise," Randolph said. "The conventional farm is more like a desert."

The experience opened their eyes to how coffee is produced and the negative effect that traditional coffee farming has on the environment. They also spent hours harvesting coffee beans, learning how to pick the fruit and identify ones that were not ripe. "I definitely have a new appreciation for where my coffee comes from," Pulhac said.

WU Brew, in addition to being available by the bag online, is served at all catered events on the university's campus and in the Widener Pride Café where Randolph gets her daily cup of coffee. "Every time I get a cup, I think 'This could be coffee that we picked,'" she said.

Students from other disciplines have also gotten involved with the WU Brew project. Three communication studies majors made the trip to Costa Rica and helped to develop the brand name and a video promoting it. Business students in a summer management class also connected with Golden Valley Farms Roasters, developing a business plan to help the company place single-serving machines in office settings.

The project has resonated for Randolph and Pulhac. Both plan to return to Costa Rica next year, and Pulhac started studying Spanish in order to better communicate with farmers. They said for them the eye-opening experience of learning how coffee is grown is a beginning, not an end. "It's a huge step to a better earth and healthier planet," Randolph said. "I really want to help the world out by making it cleaner."

For more information, and to purchase WU Brew, visit www.widener.edu/wubrew.