Remember those robusta beans that are more tolerant of heat and direct sunlight than their arabica kindred? Because they have a higher yield and can be grown at lower altitudes, as well, they have found great favor with some coffee roasters and importers, especially those whose products are geared toward the less-pricey “mass market” coffee. Coffee farmers growing the robusta beans are doing so by clear-cutting tracts of indigenous vegetation to cultivate their coffee shrubs. Arabica coffee shrubs, which are less tolerant of imperfections in their surrounding microclimate, are grown under a canopy of shade from taller trees (“overstory” trees), such as banana, plantain, citrus, medicine-producing trees or others native to an area. The overstory trees shield coffee plants from excessive winds and light; they provide natural protection from temperatures and humidity that may be less than ideal. Such coffee is called “shade grown.”
Why Shade Grown Coffee Is Important
Coffee cherries mature more slowly in this filtered sunlight. According to some coffee experts, this gives the beans a chance to develop more natural sugars and a fuller flavor. On the downside, the cherries mature more slowly in a world where time is money. The indigenous shade trees aid in the retention of soil moisture and may help prevent some soil erosion, a major concern in any form of agriculture, although there is controversy over this.
The overstory trees planted to tower above the coffee plants can provide economic diversification and some minimization of risk for a farmer, as he or she can harvest the bananas or plantains or other crops (such as macadamia nuts) produced by the trees or by insects living in them (in some cases, beehives in the shade trees allow for a harvest of honey).
The shade trees may also prevent the sun from bleaching some nutrients out of the topsoil, meaning that less fertilizer is required. Nitrogen, critical to determining coffee yield, may be present in greater quantities naturally in shade grown systems, due in part to the degradation of material that falls from the overstory trees.
There’s some speculation that shade grown coffee plants live and bear longer than do coffee shrubs grown in the sun. Definitive statements are difficult to make here, as the chemistry surrounding coffee plants and their environment is still imperfectly understood.
The chief drawbacks to shade grown coffee are lower, slower yields; poor farmers often have little incentive to wait for less coffee for a longer period of time simply because it might be better for the environment.
Shade Grown Coffee & Its Impact On Bird Populations
Certainly, one of the most important aspects of shade grown coffee is its effect on biodiversity. Since the introduction of robusta coffee and the clearing of innumerable acres of vegetation to support its cultivation, populations of many migratory songbirds have been in serious decline. These songbirds don’t just look pretty; they’re a major player in helping keep down populations of insects that affect coffee (and other) plants. Up to 150 species of songbirds have been found on shade grown coffee farms; the usual number of bird species on any robusta farm is much lower. Their presence eliminates the need for much of the use of pesticides. However, if their habitat is destroyed by clear-cutting for robusta plantations, the birds have no place to live.
Such was the concern over the declining songbird populations that the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, part of the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., began certifying some coffees as “Bird Friendly.” A Bird Friendly coffee must be shade grown as well as organic; companies selling these coffees contribute 25 cents per pound sold to the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center to support research and conservation programs. Currently, over one thousand individual growers in Bolivia, Columbia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela, produce over 3.9 million pounds of Bird Friendly coffee annually. Most shade grown coffee is organic, but not all shade grown and organic coffee is Bird Friendly.
The Bird Friendly® logo certifies that the coffee is shade-grown and protects the habitats of songbirds.
If a coffee is not certified Bird Friendly, how can you be sure it’s shade grown?
Good question. At least one company, Volcanica Coffee, offers “certified” shade grown coffees; representatives of the company visit the coffee farms to be certain the coffee really is grown as a shade crop. And it isn’t just birds who benefit from shade grown coffee; insects and small mammals, among others, find shelter and food under and in the taller shade trees.