Coffee Farms – from Sun to Shade

Coffee is a tropical crop, grown in what has been cleverly dubbed “the bean belt” – the strip around the center of globe that binds the equator. Almost all of these coffee-growing regions overlap with areas of high biodiversity of plants and animals. So the way that coffee farms are managed can have a huge impact on the level of biodiversity that the landscape can support.

And they way that coffee farms are managed varies drastically – from those that are intensely managed with very few or sparsely planted shade trees to those that mimic coffee’s natural habitat in which the coffee plants are basically the understory of forested areas. “Shade coffee” is a term used to describe the coffee farms that have a diverse shade tree cover – although there is not “shade coffee” certification – more on that in the next post.

Shade coffee - Chipas, Mexico
Shade coffee – Chiapas, Mexico
Shade coffee - Aquiares, Costa Rica
Shade coffee – Aquiares, Costa Rica

At the other end of the spectrum are “sun coffee” farms – where there is no sign of trees, just rows and rows of coffee plants as far as the eye can see. This makes for beautiful agricultural landscape photos, but not great wildlife habitat. Sun coffee often requires higher chemical inputs to replace the nutrients lost from the lack of shade trees. Then there are all sorts of combinations between these two extremes.

Sun coffee - Chiapas, Mexico
Sun coffee – Chiapas, Mexico

It makes sense that animals would prefer to live in the coffee farms that are more like forests that have more food and habitat resources. And it makes sense that farmers would want to maximize the amount of coffee they produce on their farm – as this is their professional and livelihood. Can these two things work together? Is there a balance between protecting wildlife habitat and providing a sustainable living for coffee communities? This is the essence of the questions that I have been researching over the past several years and I’ll tell you straight away – there are no simple answers.

So here’s some of what we know so far…

  • In general, wildlife (i.e. birds, bats, bees, insects, mammals) are found in higher numbers on coffee farms that include diverse shade trees and canopy cover.
  • Chemicals are not good for animals, people, or the environment.
  • There are a lot of resources and habitat in forested areas for animals.
  • More coffee plants produce more coffee berries per area.
  • The average coffee farmer struggles to make ends meet off of coffee profits alone.
  • We drink a lot of coffee in the US and pay a decent amount for it.

The difficult part is that each of these points has caveats:

  • There are also animals found in intensively managed sun coffee farms.
  • There are chemicals that are not harmful or as harmful (and sometimes there are disease breakouts that are really hard to combat without chemicals).
  • Not all animals are dependent on the forest and some have wide ranges so they can use both forested areas and other surrounding land uses.
  • Certifications provide coffee farmers with a higher premium for their coffee (but does the premium outweigh the additional costs? – more to come on that in a later article).
  • There are wealthy, large coffee farmers.
  • The money we pay for coffee does not necessarily trickle down to the farmers –there are a lot of intermediate steps between the coffee farm and your coffee cup.

So where does that leave us? Maybe with more questions than answers at this point. I’m beginning to think of this blog as a journey where I can elucidate what we are seeing along the way, but I am not exactly sure where this path will lead… and maybe that is just part of the adventure and exploration.

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