The National Federation of Coffee Growers is trying to find as many as 50,000 people under age 35 to revive the business over the next decade with the help of government-subsidized bank loans.

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The drop in world coffee prices since May isn’t deterring Luis Sanabria. He is in the midst of his first harvest as a plantation owner, picking the red berries that will become Colombia’s mountain-grown coffee.

Sanabria and his 23 partners are the vanguard of a plan to boost Colombian coffee production one-third by 2014. Growth of the country’s leading agricultural export is threatened by aging farmers and fields, as well as increased costs and the plunge of commodity prices in a global recession.

The National Federation of Coffee Growers is trying to find as many as 50,000 people under age 35 to revive the business over the next decade with the help of government-subsidized bank loans.

“This is a dream come true,” said Sanabria, 34, of his new job at Las Flores, a 309-acre farm perched in the lush mountains of Santander province, 186 miles northeast of Bogotá. “I am a coffee man, and that’s all I ever wanted to be.”

Coffee in Colombia generates $1.9 billion in annual revenue and employs 4 million people, 10 percent of the country’s population.

Sanabria is part of a new generation of farmers whose symbol is Juan Valdez, the worker with sombrero and mule that made coffee as well-known an export as cocaine.

Their “Young Growers” brand is sold in the Bogotá-based group’s Juan Valdez stores in Colombia, the U.S., Spain and Chile.

Even though coffee prices dropped 16 percent between May 1 and Dec. 10, the lower prices were offset by a 24 percent slump in Colombia’s currency in the same period. That means more pesos for each dollar of export revenue, and most of the country’s coffee is exported, about one-third of it to the U.S.

Even so, a weakening world economy has hurt demand as consumers cut back on expensive drinks.

Starbucks, the world’s largest coffee chain, said in July it would shut 600 stores in the U.S. and cut 12,000 jobs. The Seattle-based company, which uses Colombian beans in its products, said Nov. 10 that quarterly profit fell 96 percent.

The global slowdown adds urgency to the growers’ recruiting program. More than half of the nation’s 560,000 family farms may collapse without refurbishment, according to Gabriel Silva, 51, head of the growers federation.

Half of the coffee bushes are older than the six-year optimum age for producing beans, he said. “For coffee to have a future in Colombia, we need to renovate aging plants and aging farmers,” he said.

The federation administers the program with a $6 million loan from the Washington, D.C.-based Inter-American Development Bank.

Sanabria and his partners were picked to operate the farm in April from among hundreds of applicants. They are bankrolled by a loan of almost $1 million.

The growers’ group helped recruits borrow from Banco de Bogotá and Banco Davivienda, the nation’s second- and third-biggest banks, as well as from Banco ProCredit Colombia. The rates are as much as 5 percentage points lower than typical commercial loans, according to the federation.

Colombia’s Fund for the Financing of the Agricultural Sector, or FINAGRO, provides money for the loans. The banks have to repay the government, so they take the risk if a farm fails.

Last year, the fund lent more than 138.5 billion pesos ($61 million) to support coffee growers, up from 23.5 billion pesos in 2003, according to the agency.

Like much of Colombia’s coffee, the Las Flores beans ripen under a canopy of trees in temperate climates along the slopes of the Andes. They are hand-picked because machines can’t operate in the mountainous terrain as they do in the flat fields of Brazil, the world’s leading coffee producer.

Colombia’s arabica bean “has a rich body and is smooth, unlike the harsher coffees that grow more rapidly, whether in Vietnam or Brazil or other places where they are out in the sun,” said Bruce Bagley, 62, international-studies chairman at the University of Miami who has written a book on the industry.

Vietnam, which passed Colombia for second place in world production eight years ago, harvests the less expensive robusta bean.

Many Colombian farms collapsed when costs outstripped prices in the early 2000s, and some growers turned to coca, used to make cocaine, Bagley said.

“The federation was alarmed by it,” he said. “That’s why they’ve launched these innovative programs designed to prevent downturns in the coffee country from leading farmers into illicit crops.”

Last spring, Sanabria was kneading dough in a bakery, struggling to feed his family.

Now, in a harvest that stretches from October to January, he is in the fields at 6:30 each morning, picking ripe berries.

Sanabria and his partners are among 225 young farmers working under the 2-year-old recruiting program, according to the federation. By 2011, it plans to raise the number to 1,000, with the 50,000 target a decade away.

“This is a project for life,” said Miguel Angel Murillo, 23, who gave up plans to join the army to return to his family roots as a coffee grower at Las Flores. “It’s incredible to think that this plantation is ours.”