Elan Organic Coffees supports shade-grown coffee as a means to improve the income and diet of poor coffee farmers and restore habitat diversity in tropical forests that are endangered by development.
What exactly constitutes a coffee plant grown in shade? And why is it more ecologically beneficial than sun-grown coffee?
Coffee is commonly grown in two different ways: in shade or in full sun.
Sun-grown coffee is produced on hybrid bushes that grow in direct sun without any protection from taller trees. Growers must supply these plants with agrochemicals (pesticides, fertilizers, etc.). Consequently, most farmers who produce sun-grown coffee are large growers with ample capital for costly inputs. Those costs are offset by a more intense production and higher yields per hectare than for shade-grown coffee.
Shade-grown coffee bushes grow under shade trees (vegetative coverage). This process is a less-intensive, lower-yielding form of cultivation than sun-grown coffee and may be divided into three forms:
a) Conventional shade-grown coffee, which uses agrochemicals.
b) Natural shade-grown coffee, which uses neither chemicals nor any specific technique to improve the plant condition nor the environment. It is simply left to grow as it may without any attention.
c) Organic shade-grown coffee, which does not use any type of synthetic chemical, but is cultivated using special techniques. There are different stages throughout the process and each stage employs a special technique, such as improvement of the soil, treatment for the plant, pruning of the plant and vegetative covering, etc.
Approximately 80 percent to 90 percent of coffee comes from small farmers who cultivate shade-grown bushes on one to three hectares (about 2.5 to 7.5 acres) of land. This means that most of the coffee we consume every day comes from very poor people with small farms. By diversifying the shade-tree canopy, farmers can enjoy a richer production from their land and the canopy becomes a more diverse habitat for insects, plants and migratory birds.
Coffee producers throughout Latin America use shade. There are different types of shade. In Mexico, for example, a great majority of coffee plantations have a single type of shade tree (called monospecific shade or monoculture) using Inga spp., locally called Chalum. In Guatemala, Chalum shades are used as well as another type called gravilea. Many Latin American producers plant other types of trees among the shade trees, including banana, lemon, orange, avocado and other fruit trees for personal consumption and for sale; this type of shade is called commercial polyculture.
Farmers find many good reasons for using Inga spp. (Chalum). The tree develops rapidly and its plentiful leaves contribute as a natural fertilizer when they fall to the ground. Its shade is non-intense, permitting some sunrays to enter. Its broad canopy shades a large area.
Most small coffee farmers in Latin America begin production by clear-cutting land, usually forest or jungle, and planting corn for personal consumption and sale. After two or more years of corn production, they plant coffee because it is a relatively good-paying cash crop that will earn them a profit. While growing their corn crop, these farmers prepare the coffee bushes and Inga spp. trees for later planting, resulting in growth of the same shade tree throughout their groves.
Throughout our years of contact with these farmers, we have noticed that this monospecific shade is not the best shade for coffee plantations and that harvests are better with another type of shade, which is diversified. The concept of diversified shade uses two or more layers or levels of shade trees and different species of trees.
When small farmers first began using organic production techniques and including them in the regulations for their cooperatives, there was little emphasis on the type of shade trees that should be used. Nevertheless, some small farmers have improved the diversity of the shade of their coffee groves, but this takes years. This has come from the personal initiative of the farmers and from people and agencies providing technical assistance, rather than through regulations established through the organic certification process.