The rows of coffee trees planted in neat geometric lines in a corner of Starbucks' coffee farm on the slopes of a Costa Rican volcano don't look like a research lab.
But this unassuming plot of 350 different varietals, or subspecies, of trees belies its important scientific role. While the majority of Hacienda Alsacia's 600 acres function as a working coffee farm, complete with a new Visitor Center that explores the journey of coffee from seedling to cup, 25 acres are devoted to an ambitious task: research and development to help ensure the future of coffee production.
Sabanilla, Costa Rica
The quest is led by Carlos Mario Rodriguez, director of global agronomy for Starbucks, who spends most of his working hours in and around these verdant fields, tinkering with trees that have the potential to yield innovative solutions for the future.
The farm serves as a testing ground where Rodriguez experiments with creating and nurturing specially bred varietals and hybrids, pushing the boundaries of agronomy research to breed trees that are resistant to coffee leaf rust, or roya, which is ravaging coffee crops in Latin America. He also analyzes soil and fine-tunes pruning techniques to increase coffee trees' productivity. It's boots-on-the-ground work with nothing less than the future of your cup of coffee at stake, as climate change forces farmers around the world to adapt their growing practices.
"We had a tipping point in the industry where climate change led to warmer, windier weather that points up the need to innovate to strengthen the coffee industry," said Rodriguez, his skin sun-kissed from working the fields, a Starbucks cap perched on his salt-and-pepper hair.
One way climate change is altering the coffee landscape strikes at the core of what Starbucks considers its caffeinated lifeblood. High-quality arabica coffee with its diversity of flavors is the heart of Starbucks' business, but it's becoming harder to grow in sustainable quantities in the face of climate change. That's because arabica plants are particularly sensitive to even the slightest variations in temperature and rainfall patterns.
Sharing Starbucks' research with the world
That's where Rodriguez comes in. Much of his time is devoted to the development of hybrid coffee tree seedlings at the farm's nursery, where his goal is to create hardy, productive trees laden with high-quality coffee cherries.
As part of Starbucks open-source approach to fortifying the coffee industry, new varietals and growing techniques aren't kept in a company vault; they're shared freely with researchers and farmers around the world.
Even those farmers who don't do business with Starbucks benefit from the company's findings. Rodriguez gave Carlos Gallegos, a Costa Rican farmer who doesn't sell coffee to Starbucks, Sarchimor trees, which have performed better than others he's previously planted as the Costa Rican climate continues to evolve. Gallegos said he appreciates the investment in his farm and its future.
"Sarchimor is allowing us to control the coffee leaf rust and increase our productivity," said Gallegos. "The fact that they donated the seeds to our farms has made a significant contribution to our business because of their resistance to coffee leaf rust and higher productivity."
Creating new varietals is painstaking work that demands patience: Rodriguez and his colleagues select promising plants, establish a plot and then wait. And wait. And wait. "It takes 10 to 14 years to see which are strongest and most productive," he said.
Rodriguez has identified 17 new varietals that meet Starbucks' demanding quality and size criteria. He scrutinizes the cherries by processing, drying and preparing samples of coffee cherries, which are roasted then cut open to determine their acidity and complexity.
Selective pruning to create uniform trees is also important; uniformly sized trees produce healthier coffee cherries and attract more pickers because they're easier to harvest. It's kind of like baking: you don't want small cookies and large cookies on the same baking pan because they'll cook unevenly.
Rodriguez also tends the prized "Core Collection," which represents the 100 most genetically diverse strains of arabica coffee in the world, sourced more than 50 years ago from Ethiopia, the birthplace of arabica.
Starbucks is one of the first recipients of the Core Collection, distributed by World Coffee Research, a nonprofit committed to finding sustainable ways to promote coffee production.
"We are trying to do everything we can to ensure adequate volumes of the best quality coffee for the market in the volumes that we need," said Timothy Schilling, CEO of World Coffee Research. "Starbucks is a very important partner in this work. They are the only company that we gave the Core Collection to so far."
Rodriguez is planning to cross some of these lines with other high-quality lines to produce new hybrids with good structure and quality and resistance to coffee leaf rust. Schilling expects farmers and other companies to take note. "If Starbucks is nodding its head and saying it's important that we do this research, it has a halo effect," said Schilling.
Open source: Sharing freely is Starbucks' path to quality coffee
In 2015, Starbucks donated thousands of seedlings that Rodriguez cultivated from five new hybrid strains he developed to ICAFE, Costa Rica's coffee institute. Rodriguez recently signed an agreement with a Mexican university to donate seeds, and he's in discussions with Indonesia as well.
The donations come with no strings attached. "Farmers don't have to sell coffee to us," said Rodriguez. "Our main goal is to support farmers and improve their living conditions and to support the coffee sector overall."
There is significant concern within the coffee industry about meeting future demand, notes Bambi Semroc, vice president of sustainable markets and strategies for Conservation International, a nonprofit committed to environmental protection. "Starbucks' willingness to share what they're learning and the varietals being developed not just with Starbucks suppliers but with the entire agronomy community is really groundbreaking," said Semroc. "Starbucks needs a thriving coffee sector in order to succeed in the future, and they recognize that one way to invest in that is to help everyone."
Rodriguez's work didn't begin in 2013 when Starbucks purchased the 600-acre farm. For years, he's been experimenting on other farms, conducting his experiments piecemeal on bits and pieces of land owned by other Costa Rican farmers. He freely shares the results with those other farmers and World Coffee Research, as well as universities and other research centers.
Since Starbucks purchased Hacienda Alsacia in 2013, the farm's yield has increased by nearly 50 percent. Much of that improvement can be traced to the Farmer Support Center located on the farm, which helps farmers who are part of Starbucks' supply chain - and those who aren't - learn how to grow coffee more sustainably, using less water and less land to produce more coffee by relying on shade trees, as well as proper irrigation techniques and soil management to encourage productivity with minimal impact to the environment.
Starbucks has nine Farmer Support Centers throughout the world; its Costa Rica site was the first. Starbucks has a commitment to purchase 100 percent ethically sourced coffee and contributes toward this goal by investing in its Farmer Support Centers.
Rodriguez assists farmers in setting up their own test plots on their farms, explaining the importance of spacing the trees correctly - if they're planted too close, they compete for nutrients; too far away, farmers aren't maximizing their land.
Soil plays a critical role in nurturing healthy trees, so Rodriguez helps farmers understand the right balance of elements that comprise healthy growing conditions: the healthiest soil contains the correct ratio of potassium, calcium and magnesium but also smaller proportions of elements such as copper and manganese. He also trains farmers to better manage weeds to help with erosion and to create channels to help efficiently move water through farmland.
Perhaps because Rodriguez is in the field every day, tending to his growing trees and actively working to make coffee more sustainable for the entire industry, he's bullish about the future of the coffee bean. "There are certainly changes in the coffee sector, but we are using this time to produce better-quality coffee that everyone will benefit from," he said. "I don't see this as a risk but as an opportunity."