How About A Nice Cup of Joe ?

I come from a long line of coffee drinkers. In my childhood home, the coffee maker was set up before going to bed and on a timer, such that it had brewed itself and was ready, for when the earliest of us awakened. I still love my triple-strength instant coffee in the morning. Brewing coffee is too much work for the little bit that we drink in my home. But if I were into brewing coffee, I think I would want to support “shade-grown coffee”.

A migratory bird perched among the Coffee Beans

A migratory bird perched
among the Coffee Beans

My now deceased mother-in-law had a lifelong interest in birds and did feeder watch counts for Cornell’s Project FeederWatch. Her interest in birds broadened my awareness of the birds that inhabit my Missouri forest. There are wide-ranging benefits for birds that result from shade-grown coffee. According to a comprehensive study by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, shade-grown coffee production is the next best thing to a natural forest. There is a demonstrable increase in the numbers and species of birds within the habitats of shade-grown coffee farms. Migratory birds are integral to tropical and temperate ecosystems alike, providing flower pollination and seed dispersal, among other roles.

Orchid growing  in Tree Canopy

Orchid growing
in Tree Canopy

“From my own research in Nicaragua and other studies throughout the region we also know that there are hundreds of orchids (likely thousands of species of orchids and other [plants that grow on trees]) conserved in the shade trees grown above the coffee and nearly [all] orchids are endangered,” Christopher Bacon, coauthor of a recent study published in Bioscience, said. “The trees, the biomass and all the associated biodiversity directly linked to shade trees are lost with the conversion from shade to sun coffee.”

Varieties of Coffee Forests

Varieties of Coffee Forests

The benefits of this system of coffee growing go beyond its impact on bird populations. There is better soil protection/erosion control, more carbon sequestration, a source of natural pest control (yeah, the birds again !!) and improved pollination. Shade-grown coffee is regarded as a form of permaculture. Unfortunately, shade-grown coffee cultivation has deceased 20% since 1996. Only 24% of the total coffeebean cultivation is under shade practices.

One issue impacting this is the development of coffee varieties that are more tolerant of sun exposure as fungal diseases are problematic in shady areas. Though the commonly held assumption is that sun exposure prevents fungal infections; some studies have suggested that shade coffee is better at fighting disease than is sun-grown coffee, as canopy cover may cause difficulty in fungal spore dispersal.

The incentives (for a shift back towards more sun-grown coffee) “include the availability of longer-term credit, three to five years in some cases, and government and business led programs promoting the intensification of coffee production, technical assistance, and the introduction of newer crop varieties,” Bacon said. “Higher coffee prices since 2005 could also influence this decision.”

Oranges and Coffee Beans growing together

Oranges and Coffee Beans
growing together

Shade-grown coffee farmers do more than harvest coffee beans. Some farms offer eco-tourism opportunities and many recover firewood, other fruits, some building materials and even medicinal plants. Scientific field work has proven that having a mix of trees reaching a specific height and foliage density is a positive land management practice that enhances biodiversity. I would believe that picking coffee beans in the shade would be kinder to the human beings who do that work.

Man picking coffee beans in the shade

Even when buying shade-grown coffee, be sure and watch for “green washing”. Unfortunately, it is the nature of the times that we live in that marketeers will try to over-claim aspects that might give their product a boost. Certified organic coffee produced on farms with a shade cover that provides a substantial and vital habitat for migratory and resident birds in tropical landscapes, offset increasing global deforestation.

Drink Shade Grown for the Birds

~ Information Resources

The Cornell Lab Project FeederWatch –

“The Ecological Benefits of Shade-Grown Coffee – The Case for Going Bird Friendly” by Robert Rice & mauricio Bedoya posted Sept 2010 at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park –

“Shade Grown Coffee Helps Forests and Natives” by Nika Levikov posted July 13, 2014 –


Blog author ~ Deborah Hart Yemm is co-founder of
Yemm & Hart, a green materials producer



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