Shade Grown Coffee: An Agronomist’s Perspective
“Shade grown” has become something of a buzzword in the Specialty Coffee business in recent years. As consumer interest in ethically sourced coffee has grown, the issue of shade – or lack of it – on coffee-producing farms is coming under increasing scrutiny
Traditionally, coffee is grown in the shade of taller trees but in the latter half of last century many commercial farmers switched to full-sun or near full-sun cultivation, which tends to produce higher yields more quickly. Yet, its proponents argue, shade growing is not only more environmentally sound – shade-giving trees provide a habitat for wildlife and prevent soil erosion, for example – but also may produce better quality coffee. The issue is, however, by no means clear cut; “shade grown” is difficult to define – or certify – and the term is in danger of being exploited more as a marketing tool than a genuine indicator of quality or sustainability.
On a recent field trip to El Salvador and Nicaragua in April 2008, Grant spoke to Nicaraguan agronomist, Eddy Salgado, at El Quetzal (Matagalpa) about the pros and cons of shade growing. While Eddy recognised that growing under shade has a number of undeniable benefits – agricultural and environmental – he warned about the difficulties of a rigid, “one size fits all” approach to the issue and summed up the pros and cons…
- Shade trees create a micro-climate for coffee bushes and protect their growing environment.
- Shade-growing generally reduces the need for and, consequently, the farmer’s expenditure on, agro-chemicals (fertilisers, pesticides, etc.).
- Shade trees have an additional economic value and may be used by farmers to produce timber, fruit, fuel wood, etc.
- The root systems of shade trees protect the soil from erosion and prevent landslips on steep slopes.
- Shade trees maintain the moisture content in the soil.
- Trees recycle nutrients; soil is consequently richer in nitrogen and micro-organisms.
- Trees act as a wind break.
- Trees provide an important habitat for wildlife and, in particular, birds.
- Forested farms are more attractive.
- Too much shade can lead to fungal infections.
- Certification is a major problem. It is extremely difficult to provide a blanket definition of “shade grown”; the ideal and/or practical percentage of shade cover varies with every country, farm or even manzana, and at higher altitudes the agricultural value of shade is reduced.
- The further south (or, north) a farm is located from the Equator, the less need there is for shade cover to protect coffee plants from the rays of the sun: the strength of the sun’s rays in, for example, Brazil (where the sun is at an angle) is far less than the direct overhead rays from Central America. Thus, while shade cover may prove advantageous in Central America it might actually lead to a fall in yield of crops in Brazil.
Eddy did not mention, but it is nonetheless worth adding, that certifying “shade grown” coffee is made more difficult by the existence of different classes of shade. While smaller, more traditional farms tend to support a relatively diverse selection of tree species, some larger commercial farms which grow under shade will in fact only plant two or three species of shade tree and prune these heavily; in other words, these farms provide little of the biodiversity implied by the “shade grown” label sought out by eco-conscious consumers.
In short, while shade-growing is undeniably to be supported, it ought not be held up as a rigid guarantee of superiority – environmental or otherwise. To conclude that “shade equals good” and “sun equals bad” would be to defy the complexity of the coffee farming process. A much more valuable approach would be to judge each farm on its own merits – hence the importance of traceability and the relationship between grower and buyer.