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Upcycling Coffee Byproducts

Taylor Love ’93 at a coffee nursery in Costa Rica where all the plants have been treated with Husky biostimulants. Photo credit: Taylor Love ’93

How does one get to be obsessed with coffee?

      For most of us, it’s a utility. We need caffeine to survive the day. Does it really matter how we get it? We put a single-serve cup in a machine, push a button, and there’s your coffee. Or we load our Starbucks orders with froths and pumps and sweeteners, caramel this, pumpkin spice that. It’s a good drink. But not coffee.

      For a while, Taylor Love ’93 shared the same dismissive attitude toward his morning joe. Then one day he walked into a café in Denver and the barista handed him an Ethiopian coffee. “It was unlike anything I’d had before,” Love says. “From that moment on, it was like I realized there was something more here.”

      He became, well, slightly obsessed. He left his job in 2013 after more than a decade in equities trading and commercial real estate to stay home with his young twins. While they were at school, he started ordering bags of green coffee beans on Amazon. He purchased a small roasting machine and learned to roast his own. Eventually, he had so much coffee on his hands his wife, Kristin, suggested (or let’s just say politely requested) he begin selling some of it at the local farmers market in Colorado Springs to get it out of the house.

      “I bought a tent and a table and some burlap coffee bags and set up shop,” Love says. “What was amazing to me is that complete strangers were walking up and buying my coffee.”

      Ecstatic, he bought a larger commercial machine, cleared out an old garage, turned it into a small roastery, and began to learn the craft of coffee roasting. His coffee eventually made its way into local and national roasting competitions. He traveled to Latin America to source beans himself. And while there, he started learning more about how coffee is produced—and the difficult and dangerous conditions facing those on the production end of the supply chain.

      “In coffee, there’s a huge inequity between the producers and the consumers,” Love says. “Coffee farmers make barely sustainable living wages. Depending on the quality of the harvest and the commodity prices of green coffee, they maybe make enough to live for nine or 10 months of the year. What happens after that is that people get hungry, get desperate. That’s when you see upticks in crime and trafficking, awful things.”

      While in Colombia on a sourcing trip, Love connected with an asset management firm that had recently invested in several coffee farms near Medellín. They needed someone to manage their post-harvest operations and develop their international sales networks. It was Love’s way in. And his first step toward making an impact.

      “As partners and landowners, we had an opportunity to try to change how things happen,” Love says. “We hired people full time, we paid benefits, we set up retirement benefits for workers. We wanted to be partners and community members.”

Love visiting coffee farms in Salgar, Colombia. Photo credit: Taylor Love ’93

      In addition to unpredictable rainfall, a changing climate, and rising labor costs, small-holder farmers have to contend with fertilizer prices, which skyrocketed following the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, a large producer of the world’s fertilizer. Love had been talking with a friend named Crawford Hawkins who was developing ways to utilize coffee byproducts—the discarded fruit that encases the valuable beans. Historically, coffee husks were considered useless.

      “When you drive through the coffee-producing areas of Latin America, you’ll find there’s this unbelievably distinct smell of rotting coffee cherries,” Love says. “And you’ll see these piles in a field where it’s been dumped. The rotting fruit eventually leaches into the groundwater and river systems. It can be very problematic to the downstream communities.”

      Hawkins was attempting to use the juice from coffee cherries to form a new beverage. He sent a few samples to Love. “It just didn’t taste very good,” Love says. “And Crawford agreed—he’s like, ‘I know.’”

      The juice might not be tasty, but it could still serve a purpose. Love and Hawkins discovered that the coffee byproducts have the potential to be utilized as a biofertilizer —a plant-based alternative to chemical fertilizer.

      Last year, Love and Hawkins cofounded a start-up, Husky Ag, that is working to develop biofertilizers using upcycled coffee byproducts. Working with researchers at the University of California, Davis, and the University of Cauca in Colombia, they have been field-testing their biofertilizers on a number of different crops, including coffee, tomatoes, corn, and avocados. So far, the results have been very positive. Ideally, Love says, their product will get registered for commercial use in the United States. But his primary focus is helping the Latin American farmers who produce the coffee he and billions of other people drink every day.

      “We’re working on developing effective nutrient management strategies for farmers in Colombia,” Love says. “What’s important to us is helping the small-holder farmers who are most affected by fertilizer prices and climate change.”

      Work with the new start-up has left Love too busy to roast much of his own coffee these days. Now living in Manhattan Beach, California, sourcing from local roasters often has to suffice. “I love finding coffee that was produced by one of my Colombian friends,” Love says. “Knowing how much effort it took to put that cup of coffee into your hands is incredibly special.”