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Originally published June 19, 2012 at 5:41 PM | Page modified June 20, 2012 at 11:24 AM

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Starbucks gives hand to Colombia farmers

At its support centers, the Seattle company's advice focuses largely on agronomy, including use of the right fertilizers. Farmers also learn how to terrace their land to handle heavy rains.

Seattle Times business reporter

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Starbucks said Tuesday it has opened a farmer-support center in Colombia, the world's largest coffee producer after Brazil and Vietnam.

The facility, based in Manizales, is Starbucks' fourth support center. The first opened in 2004 in Costa Rica, which this week got its first Starbucks coffee shop, in the capital city of San Jose.

Farmers that Starbucks works with in Costa Rica have increased their yields despite some declines in that country's coffee production.

Starbucks opened a support center in Rwanda in 2009 and in Tanzania in 2011, and recently hired someone to help coffee farmers in Yunnan, China, where it also plans a support center.

The Seattle company's advice focuses largely on agronomy, including soil analysis to ensure farmers use the right fertilizers. It also teaches farmers how to terrace their land and take other measures to handle heavy rains.

In Rwanda, which has some of the lowest coffee yields in the world, Starbucks has helped farmers set up coffee mills properly to curtail soil damage.

"It's one of the places we believe we can have the most impact in a short amount of time," said Colman Cuff, vice president and managing director of Starbucks Coffee Trading in Switzerland.

By contrast, Colombia is one of Starbucks' main suppliers.

Some might argue that Colombia, long known for its coffee through the popular advertising image of fictional coffee grower Juan Valdez, should teach the rest of the world how to grow coffee.

But problems with the weather and old trees have slashed its production by about a third since 2007.

Cuff said Starbucks wants to encourage more farmers to replace old plants.

To farmers, he said, "It always seems like a bad time to cut down 8 to 10 percent of your coffee trees. 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."

The company has a strong relationship with the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation, Cuff said.

Colombia's coffee production has been hurt primarily by heavy rains, said Luis Fernando Samper, the federation's chief communications and marketing officer. The country received almost twice as much rain as average in 2008 and 2009, followed by more deluges in 2011.

The increased rain and humidity meant less sun and more fungal infections of coffee plants, as well as a dearth of dry spells during which the plants typically flower.

Temperatures also have been below average, something climate-change specialists say can happen in certain microclimates despite the overall warming of the earth.

As a result, the federation sped up replanting of coffee trees, replacing old ones with varieties resistant to "rust" fungus.

The program has been successful for large farms, Samper said, but Colombia's many small farmers have been reluctant to replant because it means lost income while new trees mature. In 2008, the federation designed a program for small farmers that includes financial and other assistance.

Renovations have picked up — by 23 percent in the first four months of this year.

"We hope to continue at the same pace for the next few years so that over 90 percent of our trees will be more productive and in better condition to withstand climate variability," Samper said.

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @AllisonSeattle.

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