Starbucks Finally Has Its Own Coffee Farm, but Why?

The coffee giant has high hopes for its first foray into growing its own coffee beans.

Jason Best has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Starbucks has bought its first coffee farm. Somehow this news comes as something of a surprise, even as most of us know that Starbucks doesn’t really grow its own coffee, no more than McDonald’s farms its own potatoes.

As you might expect, the java juggernaut has big plans for its newly acquired 240-hectare plot on the slopes of Poas Volcano in Costa Rica, saying it will transform the farm into a new “global agronomy center.”

That all sounds a bit Orwellian, eh? (Or just overweening PR-speak.) Coffee fiends will no doubt perk up to hear Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz say that the farm “opens up an opportunity for Starbucks to innovate with proprietary coffee varietals that can support the development of future blends,” but Starbucks wants you to know that this is more than about coming up with the next flavor of the month.

The company says that the venture in Costa Rica will allow it to expand its “$70 million comprehensive ethical sourcing program,” which is part of the company’s “ongoing billion-dollar commitment to ethically sourcing 100 percent of its coffee by 2015.”

So, $70 million—that’s a lot of Venti soy lattes. But what does all that really mean? To anyone with a bean’s worth of skepticism, “ethically sourced” sounds suspiciously slippery, even as a visit to Starbucks’s website finds further explanation of its “Coffee and Farming Equity” Practices program (yes, “CAFE” Practices).

There are photos of misty tropical mountains and bright red coffee beans still on the trees, as well as a PDF of a “generic” CAFE scorecard that itemizes criteria pertaining to “Social Responsibility” and “Environmental Leadership” that the company presumably uses to score its legion of growers (last year Starbucks bought 545 million pounds of coffee from 29 countries). One criteria, for example: “ZERO TOLERANCE: Employer does not directly or indirectly contract any persons under the age of 14. (Starbucks prefers that suppliers do not hire anyone under the age of 15.) Or: “Farm has a written soil management plan that includes measures to minimize surface erosion.” 

A glossy fact sheet on the site boasts that the percentage of coffee purchased by Starbucks that is “CAFE Practices verified” has grown from 77 percent in 2008 to 86 percent in 2011. Starbucks bought more than a half billion pounds of coffee last year from almost 30 countries around the world. Even with the best intentions, can it really say for certain that, for participants in its CAFE program, “100% of small farms that had school-age children living on the farm ensured that these children attended school over each of the analysis years”?

And how many days did they attend school? How many hours a day?  Now you’re off down that rabbit hole, and your mocha Grande is getting cold. Then you think, I shouldn’t take Starbucks to task. It’s trying to do the right thing, right? Maybe it’s succeeding? Wait, how do I know it’s trying—much less succeeding? Why should I trust Starbucks? Why should I not? Am I too cynical? Am I too naïve? Am I thinking about this too much? Am I not thinking about it enough? 

Ultimately, all our questioning is reasonable. Take the recent Oxfam campaign to spotlight the social and environmental abuses of the world’s largest food companies, whose farm workers are still going hungry as they struggle to grow the cocoa, tea, sugar, corn and soy beans that Kellogg’s, General Mills, et al. turn into Pop-Tarts and Doritos.

Back to the farm. Could Starbucks’s new coffee farm make a real difference in global coffee labor practices? Ric Rhinehart, the executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, tells TakePart, “in as much as a farmer faces different challenges and opportunities than a buyer, Starbucks's experience with this farm will be impactful.” Particularly, he says, “if they collaborate with broadbased research and coffee entities.” He's optimistic in this case that they will, though he admits, “they tend to want to go it alone.”

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