Coffee farmers in Colombia faced challenges maintaining their crops during the country’s 50-year civil war. An alliance between Starbucks and the U.S. Embassy, through its Agency for International Development (USAID) is now helping farmers refocus on their crops with an emphasis on coffee quality.
“At times, coffee farmers were unable to travel in certain areas held by guerrilla forces, which prevented them from obtaining the technical assistance necessary to maintain the health of their crops,” says Alfredo Nuño, general manager, Starbucks Farmer Support Center in Colombia. “Through Starbucks work with USAID, we have been able to help 17,500 farmers improve their crops.”
As the largest purchaser in the world of premium arabica coffee from Colombia, Starbucks is committed to the livelihoods of Colombian coffee farmers. In 2012, two years prior to signing the agreement with USAID, Starbucks opened a Farmer Support Center in Manizales, Colombia, to deliver training and agronomy support to Colombian coffee farmers.
“The quality of Colombian coffee is one of the best in the world and the idea behind this public-private alliance with Starbucks is to improve its quality even more, to be able to produce more coffee to export and thus contribute to the development of rural areas in Colombia,” said Kevin Whitaker, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia.
Starting with the soil
The initial task of the Starbucks and USAID collaboration was to promote a soil analysis program.
“Most farmers here do not use soil analysis because it’s cost prohibitive,” Nuño says. “By offering the service to them free of charge, they were able to learn so much more about their crops.”
Starbucks agronomists helped farmers learn how to collect soil samples, which were shipped to a local laboratory for examination. More than 13,000 farmers submitted samples for evaluation.
“It took us about a year to collect all of the samples,” Nuño says. “We learned that 85 percent of them had similar needs, so we enlisted the support of a local fertilizer manufacturer to develop a formula addressing the nutrient deficiencies of the soil.”
Farmers who provided the remaining 15 percent of the soil samples received recommendations for existing fertilizers to use or how to build their own formulas to support their crops.
“Teaching farmers to take soil samples, might sound trivial, but it’s not,” added Nuño. “The coffee farmers were excited to learn these new techniques and are committed to taking samples, getting results and using those results in the future.”
Engaging with farmers
With soil analysis covered, Nuño turned his focus on conducting a series of workshops to educate farmers about agronomy and maintaining quality to sell coffee at a premium price.
“There’s a perception, particularly with younger farmers, that growing coffee is not a good way to earn a living,” says Nuño. “We know that with proper knowledge and applying best practices, a coffee farm can be successful.”
Nearly 8,500 farmers were trained at the 349 workshops organized over the past two years.
“I have seen a change in the farmer’s mentality as a result of our work together. They have knowledge and new techniques to use. They feel empowered to manage their farms and speak about their coffee with greater authority,” Nuño says. “We want the farmers to be successful. We have had a chance to serve as link between them and the tools needed to produce the highest quality coffee possible. For me, that’s very important.”