Big Brother on the Coffee Farm

We came back from a recent coffee trip to Costa Rica where we were impressed by the resourcefulness of the coffee farmers’ practices. One is to plant the small coffee trees, which may take up to four years to start producing, in the shade of their “big brothers.” This way, the smaller plants are protected, and when mature, the “big brothers” are pruned back to give light to their new brethren.

Even bigger big brothers to the coffee trees are the large fruit trees planted above the coffee trees to create a “shade-grown” environment. This accomplishes a few things.

  • The birds who would love to eat all those ripe, red coffee cherries are enticed away by higher growing trees with bigger fruit, like mangoes and bananas—leaving the coffee to people like us who like it in a cup.
  • By enticing birds, the coffee farmers also reap the benefit of the natural—ahem-- fertilizer from bird droppings. And these same birds, such as warblers, eat the insects threatening coffee crops as a natural form of pest control.
  • By having a bio-diverse variety of plants and trees (vs. a monoculture) the farmers are able avoid the need for harmful and expensive pesticides and fertilizers and gain 20% in yield from the abundance of bees forests attract. Some small farms are grow up to 15 different food crops together.
  • Shade-grown coffee is also good for the environment. When large native forests are cut down to make room for sun-grown coffee, this deforestation causes carbon emissions that affect climate change. Costa Rica is actually compensating farmers for leaving some of their land forested.
  • Finally—back to the birds. Not only is shade grown coffee the best tasting, it plays a role in the conservation of migrating birds who find sanctuary in its forests. There are 90% more birds found in shade-grown coffee areas than sun-grown areas. These are the same birds that grace our back yards up north.

We hope you enjoy your morning cup of coffee and hearing the birds sing outside your window doubly when you know you’re contributing to fewer carbon emissions, providing a habitat for birds and helping farmers earn a decent wage.

For more, listen to this Costa Rican Farmer

See next post for some ingenious ways they use coffee by-products—from paper, to fertilizer, fuel and more.

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