Shade is good when it comes to coffee because the coffee tree is a shade loving, evergreen deciduous, tree whose leaves are too tender for direct sunshine. But they do need light to grow and thrive. In the sub tropical rain forests where most coffee grows, all the trees in the forest reach for the sun and left unchecked, the taller trees will completely block out the light needed for those coffee trees. Things grow fast in the tropics so shade management is an integral part of the coffee farm work load.
There are many quality levels of shade as one could imagine. It is really great to wander through a coffee farm shaded by old growth Mahogany and Rosewood trees that are ancient and massive, needing no more then two to four to shade an entire acre (400 coffee trees). That kind of coffee farming must come from a deep respect for the land and a long , continuous relationship to it over many generations, otherwise those incredibly old trees would have been cut down long ago. Gives me goose bumps just thinking about that Jaguar stalking me as I wandered off the path to touch one of those monster survivors.
Then there are farms that have no ancient forest on their land so they plant bananas for shade and maybe a local species of nitrogen fixing leguminous tree to rise above the Banana Trees. Here are two types of shade to give you a visual understanding of what I have described. The first picture shows how compatible the coffee and Banana Trees are together. Shaded by the wide fronds the coffee tree at bottom center is a deep dark green, indicating adequate nitrogen in the soil and a healthy and hardy tree. The next picture shows a very different kind of shade application, one that will support a much greater biodiversity . In the foreground, the coffee trees are under Inga trees which have obviously been planted to provide shade for the coffee trees. You can tell by their even spacing. In the background lies the undisturbed forest .
Shade is good for ecological reasons too. Tropical rains are intense. Tree roots hold topsoil and stabilize mountain sides. The over story absorbs the full force of the rain and softens the impact of torrential rains.
Shade produces “leaf litter” that decomposes on the ground providing nutrients to the soil. Shade provides homes for migratory song birds, monkeys, and a host of species that derive their sustenance from the e land also. And the birds take care of the insects so less pesticide use results. It is good to know that coffee is the perfect forest cash crop. There is no need to clear land , just the need to manage the shade that is already there . Most encouraging is when farmers start restoring their forest And that is what we encourage when we shop for coffee with shade grown on our mind (and yours).
One of my favorite shade-grown coffees right now is our SongBird Costa Rican Coffee. It is sweet with nice caramel notes with a soft finish.
Another one of my favorites is our Songbird Guatemalan coffee , same sweet notes but a bit more bright and lively in the cup.