Recently I have been seeing more and more coffees labelled as organic, fair trade and shade grown. Most people understand the first two of these three distinct (although often interconnected) processes, but what exactly is shade grown coffee?
When coffee was first introduced to the West, it was not grown in an open field as most crops are, but grown in the shade provided by a diverse species of native shade trees. These trees protect the coffee plants growing beneath them from rain and sun, help maintain soil quality, reduce the need for weeding, and aid in pest control by fostering or attracting predators such as songbirds. This was how coffee was grown for more than 200 years. In fact original coffee plants were quite intolerant of the sun and direct sunlight would burn the leaves.
Unfortunately as is the case with virtually all crops, farmers looked for ways to increase the coffee plant's yields and make harvesting the beans easier, quicker and more cost effective. About 30 years ago sun resistant coffee plants were developed. Of course these sun grown plants required more chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides than their shade grown counterparts. Not to mention all the birds and small animals that lost their homes to make way for a monoculture coffee farm.
Shady coffee farms (and I mean that in a good way) provide habitat for a great number of migratory and resident birds, reptiles, friendly insects, butterflies, bats, plants and other organisms. Focusing solely on birds, shade coffee fields shelter up to two-thirds of the bird species found in natural pristine forests in the same geographic areas. In contrast, sun coffee fields shelter less than one-tenth of bird species. Among transformed land, shade-grown coffee is most likely the crop that supports the highest diversity of migratory birds, native flora and fauna (source: Perfecto et. al. 1996, Greenberg et. al. 1997).
Not all organic coffee is shade grown, and just because it's shade grown doesn't mean its organic. However shade grown coffee uses far less chemicals than sun grown coffee, so be sure to read your labels people.
And now the obvious question ... where can I get it?
Fair trade organic coffee is everywhere now. Add shade grown to the mix and it's a little harder, but definitely not impossible. Here's a few to get you started:
Bridgehead - An Ottawa based company that offers a line of organic, fair trade & shade grown coffee and tea. Available to order online.
Pura Vida Coffee - Online shop offering organic, fair trade shade grown coffee.
Starbucks - offers an organic shade grown medium roast from Mexico. I'm glad to see shade grown going mainstream.
You can also ask your local coffee hang-out if they serve shade grown coffee. If not, ask them to start!