Enjoy your morning cup of coffee on the patio and listen to the songbirds. There's a connection between the two.
Conventional, “modern” coffee plantations are replacing wildlife habitat at an alarming rate, and the population of songbirds across North and South America is in significant decline. “Shade grown” coffee, the traditional method of coffee farming, offers a promising alternative.
Benefits of Shade Grown Coffee
As the coffee beans mature more slowly in the shade, natural sugars increase and enhance the flavor of the coffee.
Next to tobacco, coffee is sprayed with more chemicals than any other product consumed by humans. Shade grown coffee is most often organically grown, free of chemical use.
Promotes a Healthier Environment
Shade grown coffee requires little or no chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. The shade trees filter carbon dioxide which causes global warming, and aid in soil moisture retention which minimizes erosion.
Provides Bird Habitat and Greater Biodiversity
Migrating bird populations have been in rapid decline since the introduction of “sun” coffee and the consequent destruction of rainforest for more coffee plantations. As many as 150 species of birds have been identified on shade coffee farms.
Helps Sustain Rainforests
Coffee plantations which are chemically dependent suffer from soil depletion and increased erosion. Rainforest is stripped to provide fresh growing ground. Shade coffee farms are, for the most part, organic and sustainable.
Reverses the Trend to Chemicals
Shade coffee farms traditionally use little or no chemical fertilizer.
Traditionally, all coffee was shade grown.
Most varieties of coffee are naturally intolerant of direct sunlight, and prefer a canopy of sun-filtering shade trees. The trees not only protect the coffee from direct sun, they also mulch the soil with their fallen leaves which helps retain soil moisture.
The nitrogen-fixing shade trees enhance the soil, and also provide habitat for birds. The birds in turn provide natural insect control with their constant foraging. This sustainable method of farming uses little or no chemical fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides.
In 1972, new hybrid varieties of coffee were developed to help increase production of the valuable crop. These new varieties produced significantly more coffee beans, were smaller and easier to harvest, and produced best in direct sunlight.
Many growers cut their shade trees and switched to the new varieties. Of the 6 million acres of coffee lands, 60% have been stripped of shade trees since 1972. Only the small, low-tech farms, often too poor to afford chemicals, preserved their shade trees.
Unfortunately, the new varieties of “sun” coffee came with an additional cost: the hybrids were dependent on high doses of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Soil erosion, water runoff, and soil depletion caused producers to clear vast tracts of rainforest for new soil to plant, and it became apparent that this new method of growing coffee was unsustainable.
The loss of the shade trees on such a large scale also caused an estimated 20% decline in migratory bird populations due to habitat loss.
The diminished songbird population has been noted as far away as 1500 miles from the coffee growing regions.
In 1996, the movement to support shade grown coffee was sparked by the Smithsonian Institute’s Migratory Bird Center, which gathered environmentalists, farmers and coffee companies to address the problem and promote awareness of shade coffee.
Today, sales of organically grown, shade coffee represent about 1%, or $30 million, of the U.S. market for coffee beans.
The only way to encourage shade grown coffee farming is to buy the product. Production follows demand, and many farmers are switching back to shade grown methods as consumer awareness increases.
Cost and Selection
How to know if your coffee is shade grown:
- Look for coffee plantations which state in their literature, or on their website, that they produce “shade-grown” coffee and use no pesticides or herbicides.
- Read the label and look for words such as bird friendly, fair trade, certified organic, etc.
- Country of origin is an indicator. While there are exceptions, coffee produced from southern Mexico, El Salvador, Peru, Panama, Nicaragua, and Guatemala are primarily shade grown. Also, coffee from Sumatra, Timor, New Guinea and Ethiopia are mostly shade grown. Coffees from Colombia, Brazil and Costa Rica are more likely to be “sun” coffees, although there are some shade producers from these regions.
Cost: Shade grown coffee ranges in price from $10 – 15 per pound for roasted blends. Although more expensive than regular coffee, there is far less cost to the environment.