Shade Grown Coffee

Written by Sarah Provost
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The term "shade grown coffee" has morphed from a purely descriptive phrase to an international hot button. Arabica coffee is traditionally grown in shade in many parts of the world, including Central America, Mexico, Colombia, and Ethiopia. Where the climate is rainy, as in Hawaii, Sumatra, and Jamaica, coffee is grown in full sun.

"Shade" can mean anything from the natural canopy of native trees to grid-like plantings of imported trees. In recent years, there has been a trend toward replacing shade grown coffee groves with new hybrid trees that grow well in sun. These hybrids bear more fruit in a shorter time, but also require more chemical fertilizers. Additionally, the removal of the tree canopy endangers the habitats of migrating song birds, especially in Central America.

The Shade Grown Coffee Campaign

For this reason, organizations such as the Audubon Society and the Smithsonian Institute have begun a campaign to define shade grown coffee as only those plants grown under mixed native trees, and to label such coffee as "bird friendly." They also note that the tendency toward planting only the new hybrids reduces the diversity of the species.

Those farmers who grow their coffee in sun or under non-native tree plantings oppose such labels. Many environmentally aware coffee drinkers are demanding only shade grown coffee because it is easier on the environment in several ways. Other coffee mavens demand it because it is usually among the best coffee available. As in many areas of agriculture, it comes down to the struggle between caring for the environment and the quality of the product versus producing the largest crop as quickly as possible.

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