Case study: El Naranjito

Agricultural and infrastructure improvements in El Naranjito

The people of El Naranjito, a remote village in the Dominican Republic, still cook on three-rock stoves and have no running water. "It's very, very poor," said Caroline Payne, assistant professor of political science. "Once you see it you can't un-see it, and it led me to question the system, and explore being an active part of the solution."

The residents of the El Naranjito have cultivated coffee for generations, but it is currently low grade and they can sell it for only pennies a pound. Lycoming College is working with the town to improve the quality and yield of its crop, and to help provide needed upgrades to the village's infrastructure.

The coffee at El Naranjito is already shade grown—the area is so underdeveloped they were not able to modernize and clear cut the plantations. "In many ways they are so behind they are ahead," observed Payne.

Besides improving the crop, getting USDA organic certification is the next step in reaping higher revenues for the coffee and virtually a requirement for the more lucrative markets in the U.S., but the certification process can be costly and time-consuming.

Farmers that want to go organic would have to spend $1,800 on the application fee — it might as well be $18 billion — and then face up to seven years to remediate the soil.

This is where Lycoming and partners step in. Together, they sponsor and produce a coffee, Warrior Blue, during the transition period as El Naranjito works its way to organic status. The farmers will receive a better price for their coffee than they would get on the open market, and the revenues will help pay certification costs and improvements. "This will be a crucial commitment that will assist them over the next 5-7 years," said Payne.

While better revenues on their crop are feasible, due to its lower elevation and other agricultural factors the coffee from El Naranjito will never reach the level of top specialty brands, so Payne — with the help of Lycoming students — plans to work with the cooperative to develop other products.

"It's not the perfect farm," Payne acknowledged, "so we want to be creative. For instance, cáscara coffee cherry tea is an up-and-coming product. They have been throwing the cherries down the hill as waste. That's basically free money."

Beyond farming, the ambition is to have Lycoming faculty and students temporarily embedded in the community of El Naranjito, working in conjunction with the village leaders to help them achieve their goals.

"We will look at marketing, microlending, water quality and other ways to help, and we will do it under the guidance of their leadership committees," said Payne. "It's a true partnership. They tell us what they need, and we don't do anything without their consultation."