People of Specialty Coffee: An Interview With Caleb Nicholes

people of specialty

TJ Semanchin (left) & Caleb Nicholes (right), co-owners of Kickapoo Coffee Roasters

What makes Kickapoo Coffee Roasters special?

Our business is situated in the small progressive town of Viroqua (pop. 4500) in rural Wisconsin. Our county is home to more quality-focused organic farms per capita than anywhere else in the country. Living here has certainly shaped the values and philosophy behind our company.

We are co-owners of our own importing company, Cooperative Coffees. The cooperative closes the gap in our supply chain, integrating us all the way back to our producer groups. It
 is a goal for Cooperative Coffees to understand the challenges our farmers face and to support them as much as we can. Currently our cooperative is donating 5 cents per pound to groups who have been impacted by coffee 
leaf rust Roya. Additionally, we have organized multiple producer workshops in Latin America, allowing our farmers to share strategies on 
how to combat rust Roya through fertilization techniques without the use of hybrid varietals or synthetic sprays. By collaborating with 
other roasters in our cooperative, we are able 
to support our farmers in a very dynamic and meaningful way.

We limit our purchasing to support only small to medium scale producers, mainly organized 
in cooperatives, and purchase certified organic coffee whenever possible. Currently we are at 98 percent.

Traveling to spend time with our producers is a huge priority for our company. We have taken the majority of our full-time staff to origin, as well as several of our customers. These trips give context to the work we do with farmers, benefiting our staff, customers and producers alike.

We are a company who has always asked ourselves, “How can we be better?” While perfection is never attainable, we have earnestly tried to respond to this question as it relates to all aspects of our business: employee satisfaction, customer relationships, producer partnerships, quality control and initiatives,
 as well as community involvement and sustainability. We are almost ten years old and every year we have been able to allocate more resources to these key aspects of our business; that is something that we are proud of.

We hear you recently installed solar panels at your facility. What prompted you to start looking into this? Why was it important to your organization to do this?

Yes, in July, 2015 we installed a 25KW solar system at our roastery.

We started looking into this because energy is a place where we can reduce environmental impact in our own community. The town
 of Viroqua sits just 30 miles east of a coal- burning power plant. We have felt the impact
of dirty energy at home and we were excited to support a different model. I think that it is also important to model the kind of solutions that we are asking our organic farmers to adopt as well. These are not easy decisions to make but they are vitally important to our future.

How did you go about researching your options? What were the major factors that you considered when making your decisions around this?

We were fortunate to have a company in our town called Ethos Midwest Renewable Power that simplified the entire project for us. They helped us with every aspect of our system: sizing, location, layout, grant writing, project cost, structure, etc.

Also, Sue Noble, from VEDA, helped us identify and write a Rural USDA grant that saved us $18,000. Thanks Sue!

In the end, we got to collaborate with people who brought a lot to the table, making this whole process fairly straightforward.

What are the major changes or benefits that you’re anticipating as a result of this effort? What are your goals for this project?

Our goal was to offset 100 percent of our power usage through our own solar production and to be a company that challenges the conventional model of energy production.

We weren’t expecting to receive a
lot of attention for this but people have surely noticed, highlighting our company in a positive way.

This was also a very sound financial decision. Based on current energy costs, which are bound to go up, we will pay back our system in less than seven years. We would have paid $150,000 in a conventional energy model over the next thirty years. Instead, we will be paying around $30,000. Our solar power system will bypass
 a lot of burned coal and save us approximately $120,000 in energy bills.

What advice would you give to fellow coffee organizations that may be considering this kind of investment?

I would recommend finding someone locally who is familiar with the ins and outs of solar as well as any incentives and restrictions that may exist with local utility companies.

Grants are available for these kinds of projects, even if you have to pay someone to write it for you. We received approximately $35,000 in grants, both federal and state. Also, there is a 30% federal tax credit that expires in 2016 so sooner is likely better than later.

Run the numbers, there is a good chance that you can step out of the conventional energy grid and save yourself a lot of money.

What are you doing to make coffee better? Tag your social media posts with #MakeCoffeeBetter and let us know!