What it is
Shade-grown coffee is coffee grown underneath a canopy of taller trees that provide shade from the sun. This is how coffee originated. Coffee grew wild (and still does) in the forests of Ethiopia. However, pressure to increase profits and yields has led many growers to clearcut forests and grow mono-crops: one species, one variety, baking in full sun. While provides them with greater yields, the taste of the bean suffers and it’s environmentally unsound: requiring more water, pesticides and chemicals.
With shade grown coffee, there’s a continuum. In some cases (rustic) very few of the native plants are removed, the soil retains its natural richness and so there’s no need for pesticides or chemical inputs. In other cases, a polyculture of many varieties of coffee are planted among many varieties of native trees and fruit trees, giving the farmers more income and coffee a healthy ecosystem.
And why it’s good
Because shade coffee takes more time to ripen, the taste is more complex and more flavorful than coffees that develop too quickly.
Polyculture (many varieties and species planted alongside one another) shade environments enrich the soil and strengthen root systems, preventing soil degradation and erosion and requiring fewer expensive and harmful amendments.
Shade forests capture and retain rainfall and require little or no irrigation. These forests also lower temperatures for the heat-sensitive coffee trees and trap runoff water, preventing erosion and keeping the local water supplies clean for animals and people.
Migratory and tropical birds, reptiles, ants, butterflies and so many other organisms and plant life live in these trees. Not only is this good for the survival of many species, but they increase pollination and serve as natural pest protection for the coffee trees.
By not cutting down forests, we are allowing trees to do what they do so well: capture carbon from our atmosphere and help mitigate climate change.
Income for farmers
Canopy trees can range from forest trees (such as cedar or wild fig) to fruit trees (banana, orange, lemon, avocado, and papaya) — all of which the farmer can sell.
At a time when deforestation threatens our planet and the people who make their livings nearby, buying shade grown coffee is a small way you can make a big difference.