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Shade Grown Coffee: Protecting Biodiversity and Supporting Farmers

Stepping out of the shade and into the (lime)light

There have been a number of movements in coffee over the years and one that perhaps hasn’t garnered as much attention is shade grown coffee. Back in the early noughties, at least in the UK, “Is it shade grown?” was often a question that would get asked in cafes.

Coffee is what is known as an understory crop – one that forms the lower level of a canopy in the forest. It developed in forested areas and this is its natural habitat. It likes shade, and in turn, shade slows maturation which is equated with a better flavour profile when it’s made its way to the café.

Viewing flavour preferences as subjective here, what is clear is that there are tangible benefits not just to the coffee, but also the planet.

With the introduction of the deforestation laws in the EU, then this is likely to start gaining more prominence over the next couple of years or so. Handy then that World Coffee Research have recently released the second country edition to their shade catalogue, providing a companion to Indonesia with a Peruvian resource too.

Shade is not only good at slowing and cooling the coffee plants. It can provide additional income by providing timber or marketable fruits. Citrus is common, as is avocado. Mangosteen, papaya and mango are also crops we are familiar with.

This additional income in turn encourages proper management of the forest turning a farmer into a custodian. Banana trees will help return potassium to the soil through leaf drop. Those leaves also help maintain humidity levels in the soil protecting from evaporation and while on the tree, act so well as a windbreak it is common to see them on farms.

Many will perform more than one role, such as Archidendron Microcarpum (known locally in Indonesia as Kabau or Jaring) which provides seasoning for food. The softwood is used for building, and the roots are used as local medicine. Those roots also fix nitrogen in the soil, reducing the amount of fertiliser needed and therefore reducing costs.

The benefit to wildlife is diverse too. Different species of birds prefer to rest at different heights and so for true shade cover there should be a mix. Providing a multistorey canopy accommodates those birds that will in turn help eat insects that damage the crops. Smithsonian in their Birdfriendly certification suggests the emergent – the stratum of taller native species – and understory should form around 20% each of the overall makeup. The remaining 60% should form the principle canopy, and be formed of a ‘backbone species’.  This of course should be native to that country and must also be twelve meters or higher for the canopy.

The type of shade too is affected. It’s not the case that coffee wants all shade – it needs some sunlight filtering through in order to ripen the cherries. In this instance, some find Cashew is a good partner crop as it can (species dependant) drop its leaves when the cherry is ripening. Some systems will require pruning to ensure enough dappled light filters through.

With all those trees and a healthy diversity of species, it is not surprising that most will be organic too. The benefits for the soil life mean that overall, a healthy, low-input system of agroforestry can be achieved. In a world that is increasingly interested in this, then of course it demonstrates that a market exists and so then, does the opportunity to supply that market.

Linked below are some of our popular shade grown coffees!