Starbucks announced Tuesday it has opened a farmer support center in Colombia, its first in South America, as part of the company’s plans to expand in the region.
As the world’s third-largest producer of coffee beans and one of Starbuck’s main suppliers, Colombia in recent years has experienced a “crisis” in its coffee sector, according to the country’s agricultural minister, Juan Camilo Restrepo. Crop yields have decreased by one third since 2008, he said.
Restrepo blamed years of heavy rain leading to a spike in crop rust, a fungus that does particular damage to Arabica beans–a Colombian speciality popular among high-end vendors like Starbucks.
The farmer support center, located in the central Colombian city of Manizales, is Starbuck’s fourth worldwide, according to its website. Though the support centers typically offer farmers agronomic advice like soil analysis and terracing techniques, a company spokesman told the Seattle Times the Manizales center would focus on crop replacement in Colombia.
Colman Cuff, vice president and managing director of Starbucks Coffee Trading in Switzerland, said the company wants to encourage more farmers to replace old coffee plants with new varieties resistant to the crop-rust fungus.
Larger farms have been receptive to the switch, Luis Fernando Samper of the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation, which has partnered with Starbucks, told the Seattle Times. Smaller coffee producers have been more reluctant, as they stand to lose a greater portion of their income waiting for the coffee trees to mature.
For smaller farmers, “It always seems like a bad time to cut down 8 to 10 percent of your coffee trees,” Cuff said. “When the market is going up, you want to leave them in, and when the market is going down, you want to leave them in.”
Still, Samper noted, crop renovations increased by 23 percent in the first four months of 2012 compared to the same period last year.
Restrepo’s office has also pushed for the new cop varieties, as well as more government support for younger farm owners who are supposedly more likely to modernize. Coffee farm owners in Vietnam, the world’s largest producer, are on average 30 years old, he said in a speech to the Chamber of Commerce earlier this month. In contrast, Colombia’s typical farm owner is 50. “We must renovate, renovate, renovate,” said Restrepo, who has called 2012 “one of the worst years” for Colombian coffee production.
Already, Starbucks has more than 500 shops scattered throughout the Caribbean, Central and South America, according to the company’s website.
On Tuesday Starbucks also announced the opening of its first storefront in Costa Rica, another of its major coffee suppliers, as part of its Latin American expansion. Starbucks has yet to open a shop in Colombia.