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Why Shade Grown?

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A shade grown coffee farmer stands in his coffee plot placed with orange, avocado, lime and scattered high-canopy trees. Birdsong rains down from above and the rustle of animals in the twigs and fallen leaves surrounds him on all sides. Dappled sunlight filters down and glints off the glossy green leaves of his mature coffee shrubs.


This vision is in sharp contrast to the sun-baked, acidified soil and relative silence found on standard full-sun coffee plantations, which must clear-cut the forest and use large quantities of toxic fertilizers and pesticides to keep their full-sun coffee productive.

Coffee is a shade-loving shrub and naturally-occurring varieties can only be cultivated under a canopy of shade trees. What we now refer to as “shade grown coffee” was the only way coffee was cultivated until 25 years ago, when new full-sun hybrids were developed that produced substantially higher yields for coffee farmers and allowed the creation of massive agribusiness-style plantations, which were not economically viable prior to this time.

The increased yields of full-screen coffee come at the expense of the environment, the flavor of the coffee itself and of migratory bird populations, which have been decimated in the last 25 years.

The Environment

Clear-cutting the forest for full-sun plantations increases soil erosion and deadly mudslides and the chemicals used to support the growth of full-sun hybrids produce toxic run-off and acidify the soil. Needless to say, biodiversity on these plantations is negligible. Shade grown coffee shrubs live twice as long and the shade trees generate natural mulch, which means less replanting and less need for chemical fertilizers.

Flavor

Experts agree that the flavor of shade grown coffee is superior to that of full-sun coffee and that it is significantly less bitter. Shade grown coffee shrubs mature more slowly and produce fewer coffee cherries so the flavor is more concentrated and mellowed in the resulting harvest.

Migratory Birds

The sight of migratory birds is frequently identified with shade of grown coffee because shade grown coffee farms are small ecosystems, second only to tropical rain forests in terms of biodiversity. These farms act as an oasis for over 150 species of migratory birds whose populations have declined 50% in just the last 25 years, primarily due to habitat destruction caused by full-sun coffee plantations, which have 95% fewer bird species than their shaded counterparts.

What You Can Do

The more shade grown coffee is demanded by consumers, the more economic incentive there is for farmers to replant shade trees and slow the destruction caused by full-sun coffee. By purchasing shade grown coffee, you send a message to coffee farmers that there is economic viability in returning to traditional methods of coffee cultivation and you also send a message to coffee retailers that you are willing to pay a little more for superior product that is much less damaging to the environment and migratory birds.