Starbucks Coffee, the coffee giant with stores popping up in rapid succession around the world, offers technical support to Costa Rican coffee farmers from the Starbucks Agronomy Company located in Escazú, west of San José.
Technicians working out of the center help farmers meet the company’s standards by suggesting, for example, they use different varieties of plants or a different fertilizer, or share knowledge the company has learned from other countries.
Starbucks, which pays a premium for Costa Rican coffee, doesn’t try to teach growers, some of whom represent several generations of coffee farmers, how to grow coffee.
Rather, teams that go into the field to advise farmers aim to help them obtain the particular flavor of coffee the company is looking for. “We enter a conversation with them,” said Peter Torrebiarte, general manager of Starbucks Agronomy Company. “They may come to us and ask us what we want, and then together we can find the right cup profile.”
The object of establishing the close relationship is to assure quality over time.
“If we can continue to work with the same farmers year after year, we can obtain quality results year after year,” he said.
The advisers also help farmers participate in Starbucks’“Coffee and Farmer Equity (CAFE) Practices” program, begun in 2004, to encourage sound environmental and labor practices on coffee farms.
The 10 technicians in Costa Rica and one in Guatemala work with farmers throughout Central America.
Farmers are graded in meeting certain standards, which translates into more purchases from Starbucks because coffee is purchased first from farmers with higher grades.
In the first year of the program, Starbucks bought 35 million pounds of “coffee practice” coffee. Last year, the figure jumped to 76 million pounds.
The company has the goal of buying 225 million pounds, most of its coffee, from “coffee practice” growers by 2007.
One farmer who participates in the program, in addition to the Rainforest Alliance farm certification program, is Ronald Peters of the Hacienda La Luisa in Sarchí, northwest of San José. The finca has 300 hectares of coffee, 115 hectares of sugarcane and 225 acres left to jungle.
Much of the coffee land contains poró trees to provide shade for the coffee plants and habitat for some of the many species of birds and animals on the land. A generous quantity of aguacatillo trees in the forested areas guarantees the presence of quetzals, which migrate up and down the mountain in search of their favorite fruit.
From a vantage point above Peters’ farm, looking over the generously wooded areas plunging into stream areas, it’s easy to distinguish La Luisa from nearby farms that don’t participate in certification programs.
Rapid expansion will lead Starbucks Coffee to increase the volume of beans supplied by Central America and seek new suppliers in places like Peru and Indonesia, Torrebiarte said.
“Opening five new stores a day,we have to buy more coffee from Central America and more coffee from different origins,” he added.
Because most of Starbucks’ coffee currently comes from Central America, the growth of the company’s coffee purchases outside the region will be greater than Central America.
“The ratio of growth from Central America will be less than that of say Peru,” Torrebiarte said.