James Curren left his hectic globe-trotting job as an agricultural commodities trader a decade ago to open Providence Coffee, an organic coffee roasting company in Faribault, Minn.
Curren's caffeinated reinvention has since whipped into a small, thriving wholesale business with 150 coffee shops as customers for his organic beans.
In the past year, Curren's quest for a more environmentally friendly company — and the new products that would result — have caught the attention of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), the University of Minnesota Duluth and agricultural and retail gurus from across the state. Curren has started recycling the waste from his coffee roasting to create a new JavaCycle line of fertilizer, soap, fire starters and mulch.
"His goal is to have zero waste from his coffee roasting business," said Wayne Gjerde, the MPCA's recycling market development coordinator. Gjerde's job is to help turn one company's waste into another's raw material.
For years, Curren roasted coffee and threw away the byproduct — millions of coffee bean skins or husks, called chaff, that previously had no use beyond a landfill. "I just knew it could become an animal feed or fertilizer," Curren said.
"After some discussion, we [at MPCA] said, 'Let's check this out. It looks like you might have a real product. The big question is, does it have nutrients?' " Gjerde said.
Gjerde directed Curren to the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI), a state and federally funded, Crookston-based agency that helps tiny firms develop partial ideas into real products that are not only desired by consumers, but also easy to manufacture, handle and distribute.
So, several months ago Curren showed up in the lab of AURI scientist Alan Doering with two giant garbage bags filled with roasted coffee-bean husks. "My first thought was, it had a great aroma," Doering recalled. "In our labs, we get all kinds of smells because we often work with manure. But in this case, the rest of the office didn't mind my working on this project at all because the office smelled good."
It took weeks of chemical analysis and thousands of dollars, but those first bags of husks eventually became the granular, nitrogen-rich JavaCycle Soil Builder. The product hit the retail shelves of Mother Earth Gardens in Minneapolis in November. It comes in three bag sizes, ranging from just over a pound to 25 pounds. Curren hopes to eventually sell JavaCycle to The Wedge, Egg|Plant Urban Farm Supply, Tangletown Gardens and other food co-ops, nurseries and garden centers.
"It's a viable product," Doering said. "It is a source of fertilizer, and it enhances the soil health and drainage. And it's organic. That offers another alternative for marketability on the retail side."
This month, Gardens of Eagan agreed to test JavaCycle in its Northfield greenhouses beginning in March, said farm manager Linda Halley, who took about 40 pounds of JavaCycle to mix into her seed pots.
"It's pretty cool. We are testing it in our greenhouses to see if it improves drainage and the fertility of our plants during their six-week life … in our 30,000-square-foot greenhouse," Halley said. "If we like this, we are going to need more than a couple bags. … We'd need it by the truckload."
That verdict won't be in until April, when her greenhouse plants grow large enough to compare the treated pots to the non-treated ones.
"The market potential for the fertilizer products I hope would be $5 million in five years," he said. "About three years ago, I started toying with the idea of coffee chaff recycling. But it was just in the last six months we sat down with AURI and said, 'Let's make a real product.' Now I think this has the legs to [get] to that next level."
Curren has his eye on more than fertilizer. JavaCycle has four other coffee-husk products in various stages of development. There's exfoliating soap (sold at Mother Earth Gardens), pressed planting pots that dissolve into the ground, and husk- and dirt-encased "flower seed balls." The latter can be tossed by urban gardeners into city parks or fields to produce flowers.
Curren also has won a Bremer Bank grant to convert his coffee bean husks into commercial fire starters. Researchers from the U's Natural Resources Research Institute are helping with quality control and marketing.
"These are all products in the development stage. But this is what the future of JavaCycle is all about," Curren said. "It's fun."
Curren toyed with recycling early in his coffee-roasting career, when he repurposed hundreds of imported burlap coffee-bean bags.
"Those bags had very cool graphics" and were from coffee farms all over the world, he said. "So I made purses and totes and messenger bags and pillows and foot stools with the fabric. I sold them to Caribou and Dunn Brothers and Nestlé."
Occasional orders ranged from a few dozen to one for 10,000. With the new batch of products, Curren's hoping for much more.