Shade Grown Coffee

Shade grown coffee is coffee cultivated under a canopy of sun filtering shade trees. Shaded coffee farms are more ecologically sound with the shade trees providing natural fertilizer, mulch and a source of wood used for cooking, fuel and lumber. The shade trees provide a sanctuary for bird and animal life. Often the trees used for shading coffee offer another income producing crop such a citrus fruit and hardwood.

The slower ripening of shaded coffee produces a more flavorful coffee bean. Our organic coffees are generally shade grown as well. Our current offerings of Shade Grown coffees include coffees from Costa Rica,  Mexico and Peru .

Recently at The Kaffeeklatsch, we’re hearing inquiries from folks about “shade grown” coffee. The question is frequently coupled with queries about “sustainable” coffee, and “bird friendly” coffee. We’ve been asked if we know what these coffees entail, which countries produce shade grown coffee, followed by the inevitable, “are any of our coffees shade grown?” The answer to all of the above in an unequivocal “YES.”

As the title implies, “shade grown” coffee is coffee cultivated under a canopy of sun filtering shade trees. The extent, type, and utility of shade trees employed vary from farm to farm and country to country. In Chiapas, Mexico and Nueva Segovia, Nicaragua, for example the small locally owned farms typically cultivate their coffee plants under a multi-storied shade canopy of citrus trees, leguminous trees, and native hardwoods. In the more agro-industrial setting of Costa Rica and Colombia, meanwhile, when shade trees are employed, they are frequently no more than a thin and sporadic canopy of a single species nitrogen fixing variety.

Traditionally, all coffee was grown under a canopy of shade trees. The original típica and borbón varieties of coffee, those brought over to the New World centuries ago, are relatively intolerant of direct sunlight and require the filtering effect of shade trees lest the leaves will burn. These ancient varieties grow to heights of twenty or more feet, require ample space to grow, are typically only moderately prolific bean producers, yet render a wonderful cup. In the last twenty-five years, however, new sun tolerant varieties of coffee have been hybridized – caturra, catuaí, mundo novo, and variedad colombiana, for example, which can be cultivated without a shade covering. These new varieties are shorter and denser in stature, allow for a much greater plant population per acre, and usually produce more prolifically.

So why would a farmer choose to stay with the shade grown granddaddies? The answer is beautifully simple: shade-grown coffees are more ecologically and economically conservative, sport greater bio-diversity, and are thus more “sustainable” than non-shade coffee farms. This is so, for a myriad of reasons. In terms of ecological conservation, the shade trees serve numerous purposes. In addition to their obvious role as a sun screen for the coffee plants, they also provide a nitrogen-rich mulch to the coffee soil as their leaves fall and decompose on the ground. In addition to being a natural fertilizer, the presence of the mulch is also useful in soil moisture conservation, suppression of weed growth, and prevention of soil runoff during the rainy season. The result is a lessened if not non-existent need for chemical fertilizers and herbicides.

The shade trees can also act as an economic buffer for the coffee farmer. Earlier we pointed out the varying layers and types of shade trees employed on small farms in Nicaragua and Mexico. Frequently, the lowest layer will be citrus, avocado, and banana trees, which provide not only food for the family, but frequently allow for excess to be sold at local produce markets. The upper shade story, meanwhile, is typically composed of native hardwood trees or large nitrogen-fixing leguminous trees, is another economic resource. As these trees are thinned and pruned throughout the year, their branches and timber provide a source of fuel and cooking wood, fencing material, and a viable source of lumber for building and construction purposes. In times of low coffee prices, clearly, the presence of the shade trees is integral in the economic survival of the small farmer.

Finally, shaded coffee farms perform an only recently recognized function – that of sanctuary for resident and migratory bird and animal life. Since the mid 1970’s, rain forests and orchards have been decimated at an alarming rate in South and Central America. As the forest disappears, the shaded coffee farm becomes a sort of tropical refuge and sanctuary for the forest dwelling fauna, mainly birds. Experts from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center have documented sightings of up to 150 different bird species in a shaded coffee farm; in unshaded coffee farms, however, only five to twenty species were counted. While this is great news for members of the Audubon Society, it is actually significant for the coffee farmer because a diverse and large bird population can often be an excellent source of insect and pest control. In general, an increase in bio-diversity results in a far lower risk of infestation, plague, and disease in the coffee farm. Thus, there is less need for insecticides – more sustainability for the farmer.

Despite these many benefits of cultivating coffee under a canopy of shade trees, farmers continue to elect to remove the shade trees and plant the new sun-tolerant varieties in dense stands for the hopes of higher production. While higher production is likely, the ecological price tag is higher on these farms due to the increased dependence on herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers, as well as increased soil erosion and water runoff. Nonetheless, this continues to be the current mode in coffee farming, particularly some areas of Brazil, Colombia, and Costa Rica.

If you as a consumer would prefer to buy “shade grown” coffee, what are your choices and how can you be sure it is truly shade grown? Fortunately, in most coffee growing countries the majority of coffee is still cultivated under shade trees, with the most notable exceptions being the Big Two of Colombia and Brazil, and to a lesser extent Costa Rica. Meanwhile, the coffees of Ethiopia, Sumatra, New Guinea and Timor are virtually all shade grown. In Latin America, the coffees from southern Mexico, northern Nicaragua, El Salvador, Peru, Panama, and Huehuetenango in Guatemala are primarily shade grown. Furthermore, most (but certainly not all) certified organic coffees are shade grown. While this list is hardly complete, it does provide a starting point when considering which coffee you want to buy.

Unlike organic coffee, there is still no established set of standards or an accepted or recognized certification body for shade grown coffees, although there are several agencies attempting to establish themselves in this new niche. Your best bet as a consumer is to buy certified organic coffees as well as coffees from the regions listed above. Furthermore, many coffee estates, while not organic, do cultivate under a shade canopy.

While this has hardly been a comprehensive report on the “shade grown” coffee phenomenon, hopefully it will serve as a starting point for your own “shade grown” coffee education.