At the Costa Rica Farmer Support Center, Starbucks research and development agronomist Sara Bogantes is fighting for the future of coffee
On a recent morning at Hacienda Alsacia, Starbucks coffee and research farm in Costa Rica, agronomist Sara Bogantes walks through the outdoor plant nursery, studying the rows of coffee plants at various stages of growth – from three months old and just sprouting to three years old and about to burst into first harvest.
To help cultivate and develop the next generation of coffee plants. To find those hybrids and varietals that have the elusive combination of good taste, high productivity and natural resistance to disease and climate change. And every day, with science, to fight for the future of coffee.
“I’m a fourth-generation coffee farmer, coffee is in my blood,” Bogantes says. “I love the connection with the farmers, but at the same time, I love making this connection through new tools, new varieties, new solutions.”
Bogantes works at the Costa Rica Farmer Support Center, one of 10 that Starbucks has opened around the world. There, she manages the “core collection” – 617 different coffee hybrids and varietals, available for free to any coffee farmer through the Starbucks open-source agronomy program.
Currently, about 3 million coffee seeds per year are distributed from the core collection to farmers in Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica – whether they sell to Starbucks or not.
About 230 hybrids in the core collection are being newly evaluated. Bogantes is part of a research and development team trying to help find the strongest and best among them.
They send leaf clippings for analysis to a laboratory in Sweden, to get early genetic clues about which are more resistant to coffee rust and anthracnose, fungal diseases that kill coffee plants. They run tests to see how the plants process and absorb nutrients, physically examine root systems and leaf structures, and taste early samples from those producing coffee cherries.
After the team identifies those that show the most promise, Bogantes works with labs on making micro-cuttings and tissue cultures, techniques which can speed up propagation and distribution. Stronger plants in the ground, faster, means more income for farmers.
She also works closely with Carlos Mario Rodriguez, Starbucks head of global research and development, as part of the overall Farmer Support Center mission to directly train farmers and set up model farms based on C.A.F.E. practices around ethical sourcing and sustainability, where all this knowledge can be practically disseminated, and farmers can see for themselves how to create optimal conditions on their own farms.
“She's very good with teaching farmers, guiding them, because of the experience that she has,” Rodriguez says. “Having a young woman supporting and interacting with farmers is very important, and also is encouraging many young people to just keep working in coffee.”
Bogantes, 35, grew up on her family’s coffee farm in nearby San Isidro de Alajuela. She was deeply impacted when an epidemic of coffee rust, in 2014, killed off almost all her family’s coffee trees. She was in the U.S. at the time, working at an internship, when she received the urgent phone call.
“I remember the weather was very cloudy. The day was so dark. It’s raining, cold,” she says, recalling the day she arrived back home. “And when I went to the coffee plantation, I remember looking at all the coffee trees, completely destroyed.
“You need to control your emotions because your parents are completely destroyed, and you need to give them support. You are feeling completely destroyed too, inside, but you need to be optimistic because you need to be the person to be the light.”
That, and a similar moment several years later in Puerto Rico, after she saw how Hurricanes Maria and Irma almost wiped out the country’s coffee industry, have underscored for Bogantes the urgency of researching and finding solutions. It’s been a theme her entire life, from her early internships in Brazil and the U.S. to her more recent work with nonprofits like World Coffee Research and TechnoServe. She joined Starbucks two years ago.
“Nothing makes me feel happier than seeing the faces of the coffee producers smile, transmitting hope and supporting them in believing that there is a future in coffee,” Bogantes says. “I feel like I’m living my dreams, but if we want to ensure coffee for the next 50 years, we don’t have that much time. This is my challenge right now.”
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