The Importance of Shade

Django Coffee Co: The Importance of Shade


There are many types of coffee cultivation, from small scale indigenous coffee growing to the large scale, commercial sun plantations. Traditionally coffee has been cultivated in tropical and sub-tropical areas at high elevations where the coffee naturally grows under the shaded canopies of the trees. [1] This method is integral to aggro-forestry systems in which tree species can be cultivated together with coffee in order to improve biodiversity and improve the environmental conditions of the land. These traditional methods have been passed down through generations of coffee farmers and have been proven to be successful even before synthetic pesticides and fertilisers started to be widely used. [1] However these shade grown methods are not without their disadvantages and in such a demanding world where quantity usually out way quality, this method has been replaced in many coffee growing regions. The disadvantages of shade grown coffee is that it is very labour intensive and produces lower yields meaning a larger workforce for a smaller percent of product to sell. Shade grown coffee is also more susceptible to the growth of moisture loving fungi which again could have a dramatic impact on the potential yield and profit for the farmer. [2]

An increase in market demands for coffee led to “Sun cultivation techniques” to be developed and during the 1990’s farmers were encouraged to replace their traditional shade grown coffee species with new sun tolerant varieties. [3] This resulted in mass deforestation in many areas where the forests were cleared, habitats were destroyed and biodiversity decreased in order for these sun varietals of coffee to be planted in rows where pesticides and fertilisers could be used in this intense farming method. [4]  These techniques require less labour and produce larger yields of crop making them very cost productive for the farmer, however the ecological price tag is much higher. [5] They eliminate the diversity of plants which support insects and animals impacting on the biodiversity which has a negative impact on the environment. [1]

Globally 25% of world coffee is managed under diverse shade, 35% partial shade and 40% under full sun. [6] Coffee varietals generally prefer shaded environments and it is only the Robusta bean that fully flourishes in direct sunlight. The better quality Arabica beans benefit under the cover of shade and are grown in more environmentally stable ways. [4] There are many more beneficial advantages of growing coffee under a shaded canopy that far outweigh the lower yields and high labour cost. The main advantage is the benefit to the environment. Shade grown coffee aids habitat, pollination and the dense vegetation helps purify air and filter water that runs through the system. [4] The abundance of trees enables more carbon dioxide to be taken out of the atmosphere during photosynthesis allowing the trees to mitigate the greenhouse gases within the atmosphere that are beneficial to combating climate change. [2] The greater number of trees also means that their roots help fortify ecosystems, providing structural and chemical resources. [2]  The network of fine and coarse roots help prevent erosion whilst the fallen leaves and other debris improve the nutrient content in the soil. The shade of the trees also decrease the rate of evaporation of the soil allowing more moisture to remain in the soil improving the growth and health of the coffee plants. The increase in biodiversity due to an abundance of trees leads to more habitats that are beneficial to birds and the insects that pollinate the coffee plants whilst the trees also act as a buffer for the coffee micro-climates and an insulator, protecting the plants from both hot and cold weather conditions. [2] 

 ​Apart from there environmental benefits, shade grown coffee has many benefits for the farmer. In growing coffee within other tree species farmers are provided with the means to earn additional sources of income from the sale of fruit, wood and other by-products from the vast array of trees. Production costs can also be reduced due to the lack of pesticides and fertilisers that are required in order to maintain a healthy plants. Although shade grown coffee has a decreased yield per harvest, they have a longer life span than those that are sun cultivated and so therefore productivity is increased as trees do not need to be replaced or regrown as often. The increase in quality of coffee produced raises the price for the farmers and provides access into the speciality coffee market. [6] 

​The cup quality of shade grown coffee is much better that sun cultivated grown coffee as the seeds have a higher sugar and lipid content aiding the sweetness of the natural coffee unlike the bitterness that is found in sun grown examples. The smaller yields produced by shade grown farms comprise of fewer larger coffee fruits which grow evenly over a longer period of time resulting in a higher quality bean that produces an even roast when roasted. [2]

 Shade grown coffee ecosystems are excellent examples of how to produce a crop and do it in a way that is sustainable, biodiversity friendly, supports farmers livelihoods and is beneficial in the long run.  The coffee produced is of a higher quality and tastes better in the cup.