Shade Grown vs. Sun Grown Coffee

by Whole Latte Love Updated: December 3, 2020 2 min read
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I was staying warm, enjoying a hot cup of coffee, and watching my wife through the window this chilly morning filling the frosty bird feeders in the back yard. I wondered where our “summer birds” were along their southern migration routes and envied their progression to warmer climes. For many years we have enjoyed seeing the many species that visit our feeders and the trees and bushes we planted for the benefit of birds, bees, and butterflies.

This got me thinking about migrating birds in other areas and what people are doing globally to preserve or create habitats. So, the conjunction of coffee – birds – habitat spurred my thinking about coffee production methods and types of coffee plantations in the Americas. There are two major types of coffee farming, sun-grown and shade-grown.

Shade-coffee plantations can be defined as either rustic or new. Rustic plantations are created by leaving the original large tree canopy undisturbed and replacing the underbrush with coffee bushes. New shade-coffee plantations are created when a cleared forest is re-planted with large tree species for the shade canopy and coffee bushes as the undergrowth. The original varieties of coffee brought to the Americas were intolerant of direct sunlight, and required the shade of native forest trees to protect the leaves from burning. Coffee plants have been grown this way for close to two hundred years.

New sun tolerant coffee bushes have been developed over the past 3 decades that produce 3 times the yield of coffee beans but also require additions of chemical fertilizers, as well as a range of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides. So the trade off for more production has been fewer habitats for wildlife as forests are cleared for sun-coffee plantations, increased soil erosion, and toxic chemical run-off.

Shade-coffee grown in a forest-like setting provides habitat for a surprisingly rich diversity of species, especially migratory birds. A shade-coffee forest mimics a native forest, with several vertical levels of growth and a wide variety of plants and insects for the birds to eat. One study conducted in Mexico found over 140 species of birds in shade coffee farms while sun-coffee farms contained only 5-6 species.

Shade-coffee plantations are where we observe bird species like the beautiful 17 inch long Blue-Crowned Motmot with its peculiar racket tipped tails, and green, blue and black colorings. Sightings of the Motmot have been recorded in new and rustic shade-coffee plantations in Guatemala, Mexico, and Panama, but they have not been documented in sun-coffee plantations. Its call is a low owl-like ooo-doot.

Obviously it’s a tough economic decision for the coffee farmer to employ shade-grown methods vs. getting the higher yields from sun-grown. We can help make that decision by buying shade-grown coffees and thereby protecting the habitat of creatures like the Blue-Crowned Motmot. Ooo Doot!