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Four Rivers students get a taste of international coffee trade

Recorder/Paul Franz
Four Rivers Charter School Spanish teacher Rebecca Arnold with 9th grade students Aidan Kennedy and Celia Bales and the coffee bags they will be using to sell coffee.

Recorder/Paul Franz Four Rivers Charter School Spanish teacher Rebecca Arnold with 9th grade students Aidan Kennedy and Celia Bales and the coffee bags they will be using to sell coffee. Purchase photo reprints »

GREENFIELD — A coffee bean has connected Four Rivers Charter Public School, an Orange company and a Dominican Republic school in a new economic and educational venture.

Over the past two months, 31 Spanish II students at Four Rivers have researched a unit on coffee production and fair trade business practices.

It has culminated in the Greenfield charter school purchasing 40 pounds of coffee from Spirit Mountain Coffee — a plantation in Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic, that sells coffee to raise money for Doulos Discovery Expeditionary Learning School.

Four Rivers has paid Dean’s Beans, a coffee roaster in Orange, to roast the beans and apply custom labels — drawn and designed by students to explain where the coffee came from.

The end result: 40 one-pound bags of coffee available for purchase for $12 each, to support the Four Rivers school.

A fair trade exchange

Spanish teacher Rebecca Arnold has taught units on coffee production in Spanish-speaking countries for the past three years, “but it’s never felt real to students,” she said.

But this year — after meeting Krista Wallace, the executive director of Doulos Discovery School and co-partner of Spirit Mountain Coffee, at a conference in May — Arnold decided to take the project to the next level and involve students in a real fair trade coffee transaction.

In a fair trade business relationship, the path from the grower to consumer is fully transparent. There is no secret about how and where the product was grown, how it arrived at its final destination and its overall value.

And all parties are paid that value along the way. While some companies may take advantage of farmers’ inability to assess the current market values of coffee, fair trade ensures that doesn’t happen, said Arnold.

Arnold’s students learned the principles of fair trade and then researched the coffee market to determine its buying price of the Dominican Republic coffee: $3.33 per pound. Some companies may pay as little as $0.30 to $0.50 per pound for that coffee, she said.

The coffee beans grown on the Spirit Mountain plantation are grown under the shade of larger trees, without the use of pesticides. The beans are collected, put through a processing machine to remove the pulp and washed. Then, the beans are sun-dried on concrete slabs, before being placed into mesh bags for delivery.

Krista and Chad Wallace have operated the 40-year-old plantation for the past nine years. They could not be reached for comment by press time.

According to their website, www.spiritmountaincoffee.com, all of the proceeds from the coffee sales goes directly to the nearby elementary and high school, Doulos Discovery School.

Four Rivers students had a Skype conversation with the Wallaces and a Doulos Discovery student, said Arnold.

“Our students asked, ‘What can we do as kids in Greenfield, Massachusetts to help your school?’” said Arnold. “And they said, ‘Tell the story of the farmers, and see where it gets you.’”

Finding a roaster

Arnold said that Steven Levy, the designer of Four Rivers and a mutual connection between her and Krista Wallace, brought back the beans when he returned from an annual trip to the Dominican Republic.

By avoiding shipping costs, the school saved about $1.10 per pound, she said.

But then, the school needed to find a company who could roast the beans and package the coffee.

That led them to the doors of Dean’s Beans, a 19-year-old company that roasts and sells 100 percent fair trade coffee. The school is paying the Orange company $4.25 per pound for its services.

The students visited Dean’s Beans in October, toured the company’s beanery and processing facility and met its owner, Dean Cycon — who rewarded students at the end of the tour with coffee-covered espresso beans.

Celia Bales, a 15-year-old from Gill, said that students went into the meeting prepared, albeit a bit nervous, to pitch their business plan to Cycon. But he responded positively almost immediately, she said.

“Someone asked, and he said, ‘Sure.’ And that was it,” said Bales.

The tour convinced students that Dean’s Beans was the right company to roast the beans.

“(Cycon and his employees) really care about these little villages,” said Aidan Kennedy, a 14-year-old from New Salem. “They’re not just out to make a profit. They’re trying to help them out.”

Michael Skillicorn, community development coordinator for Dean’s Beans, said that the project embodies what the company sets out to do every day. The farmers in the Dominican Republic were paid fairly for the product, and the student-designed labels will educate consumers about exactly where and how the coffee was made.

“They’re really trying to learn by doing,” said Skillicorn, who visited Four Rivers twice more after the Oct. 4 tour. “They’re going to be able to pick up a pound of coffee with a label they designed and thought through. That’s really exciting.”

‘An authentic audience’

The Spanish coffee project was just one part of a bigger food and farming unit that spanned across ninth-grade classes.

Students learned about the economic and social realities behind food production, and toured farms in Franklin County to learn about those farmers’ practices and strategies. The students presented their discoveries at an open house earlier this month.

“We really want our kids to have an authentic audience for the work they do,” said Susan Durkee, the school’s assistant principal.

That was illustrated in the coffee project, she said, where students spent hours designing and editing the packaging labels. Each pound of coffee also comes with a brochure that explains, in Spanish and English, the fair trade relationship between the Doulos and Four Rivers schools.

That way, “people can see where the coffee is coming from and learn about it,” said Kai DeLorenzo, a 14-year-old Shelburne native.

The money collected through the fundraiser will be given to Four Rivers school, said Arnold. Her students are still determining what exactly they would like it to be used for, she said.

For more information or to place a coffee order, contact Arnold at rarnold@fourriverscharter.org.

You can reach Chris Shores at:
cshores@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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