A brief history of Song Bird Coffee
– By Paul Katzeff, Co-Founder of Thanksgiving Coffee
The year was 1994, the place was Washington DC, the event was the first Coffee Sustainability Conference; the host was The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. The issue that brought 150 environmental activists and coffee business owners together was the fact that the new practice of growing coffee in the sun, which was begun in the early 70’s, had been discovered to be the cause of the disappearance of 60% of North America’s migratory songbirds. When you cut down forests to expose the land to sun, you remove the homes and habitat of birds that spend their winters in the southern hemisphere, vacationing in the warm climate, in wait for the Northern Spring to begin their migration back home.
I had come to D.C. “armed” with a Keynote Address that was more of a challenge then a speech. It was titled “Beyond Organic.” I had been frustrated with the way the industry was developing and promoting organic coffee. We at TCC had been importing and selling Certified Organic coffee since 1990 but demand was slow to develop because “organic” was a health issue in America, and who wants to think about health issues when you begin your day with a cup of Joe. I saw “organic “ as a much bigger issue and so did the people at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC). They saw sun grown coffee as the way toward an environmental disaster being created by the removal of habitat needed for birds, monkeys and all sorts of forest canopy dwellers. The Conference was called to expose this problem and to stop the practice of cutting down forests to grow coffee in the sun.
Why coffee, a shade-loving evergreen tree, which was shade grown for 500 years was now being grown in the sun is a conspiracy story that involves The World Bank, national governments, chemical companies, the oil industry, international timber companies, the greed of Plantation owners and the hope of getting out of poverty by small scale coffee farmers. It is an interesting story about the early use of oil based chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides on coffee farms, and the US furniture and housing industry’s need for the hardwoods coming out of the virgin forests of Central and South America. (A story for another time).
This Sustainable Coffee Conference became a turning point for the industry. I introduced a TCC brochure that included our “Coffee Buyers Value Chart” which created a point system for buying and identifying sustainable coffee.
I challenged the attendees to think about Sustainability as more then “organic” and this set in motion the next evolution in coffee cultivation, and subsequently, the marketing of “shade grown” coffee as an essential to saving migratory songbirds.
Attending the conference was the Executive Director of The American Birding Association who, like me, was an Alumnus of Cornell University School of Agriculture. He approached me with the idea of creating a shade grown coffee package to both educate bird lovers about buying only shade grown coffee (yet to be found on the shelves), and also, to raise funds for his organization, The American Birding Association. After a handshake and three months of graphic design by Chris Blum, Songbird Coffee was launched.
In the fall of 1994 the world of coffee changed with the Songbird Coffee introduction. Coffee became a focus for America’s 73 million backyard bird lovers, the 1,000 Bird Business’ like Wild Birds Unlimited, and the 2 billion dollar bird food industry. Thanksgiving Coffee Company had used birds and shade to move organic coffee away from a health discussion and into an environmental discussion with Habitat preservation as the mission for buyers of shade grown coffee.
We have been selling Songbird Coffees for 19 years. By 2010 Songbird sales had raised $142,000 for ABA’s Birders Exchange, which purchases and donates scientific equipment to ornithologists in poor countries so they can study and preserve bird habitat in their countries to the south.
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After 20 years, it is time to reintroduce Songbird Coffees to this generation of bird lovers. Lets make our 40th year the year we put bird friendly coffee and the forest canopy it comes from into the climate change discussion.