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Sun-grown vs. shade-grown: how it impacts the environment and the farmers

Just as there are two main kinds of coffee, Arabica and Robusta, there are two main methods of coffee cultivation, sun- grown and shade-grown. Shade grown coffee is the more traditional approach that mimics the natural way coffee used to grow, underneath a forest canopy. Beginning in the 1970’s the idea of growing coffee in full sun was introduced to coffee farmers with the intent to increase production. While sun-grown coffee produces higher yields, and subsequently gives the farmers a higher profit, it has an adverse affect on the ecosystem and on coffee quality. In Guatemala, coffee is traditionally shade grown, so it has not been a major cause for deforestation in the country. However, in all of Central America, sun cultivation of coffee has led to a 2.5 million acre loss of forest. With coffee being the second most traded commodity in the world, the ways in which coffee is cultivated do matter.

At the partner cooperatives of De La Gente, the farmers produce shade-grown coffee to ensure that it will be high quality. All De La Gente coffee is arabica, which grows well at higher altitudes and in cooler temperatures. The cooler temperatures from the altitude and shade slows the growth of the beans, and causes the beans to be more dense. Beans with higher density develop more flavor and acidity meaning they are of a higher quality and are better tasting. Shade-grown coffee that is sold as specialty coffee can result in a greater income for the farmer although some of the land management practices are more labor intensive. Each year when the harvest season ends, the shade trees throughout the fields must be trimmed back to give the coffee plants more light. Cultivating coffee under the shade of trees benefits both the farmers and the environment.

Shade trees on one of the co-op members land in San Miguel Escobar

Shade trees on one of the co-op members land in San Miguel Escobar

To be classified as shade grown coffee, taller trees that provide a canopy must be planted throughout the fields Agricultural production all over the world is dependent on biodiversity, by having a greater amount and variety of trees, the amount of biodiversity increases. Biodiversity encompasses many interconnected functions of an ecosystem. An example of one natural process is how different microbes in the soil break down organic matter and cycle nutrients back to the plants. Another function resulting from biodiversity is that growing different varieties of crops together increases their resistance levels to pests and diseases. The diversity of wildlife in the environment can positively impact the coffee. For example, having more diversity of trees can increase bird population in the surrounding areas. A variety of fruit trees, and trees with epiphytes (plants that grow on trees and feed on air)  create more habitat for a greater diversity of bird species.  Birds aid the growth of coffee by serving as natural predators for coffee pests. Another effect of greater tree diversity is an increase in pollinating insects. While arabica coffee is a self-pollinating plant, the presence of pollinating insects like bees has been shown to increase production of coffee cherries.

Hiking through the shade trees and coffee plants in Ija'tz on the slopes of the Toliman Volcano

Hiking through the shade trees and coffee plants in Ija'tz on the slopes of the Toliman Volcano

Sun grown coffee removes this natural barrier to pests, reduces bird habitats, and requires a greater use of chemical pesticides to keep pests and diseases at bay. Additionally, sun grown coffee is grown as a monocrop with no diversity of other trees, so the coffee plants become more susceptible to pests and diseases. Part of this increased susceptibility to disease is a result of more stress on the plant from being in full-sun.

With shade cultivation, health of the soil is impacted positively as well. Growing other trees replenishes the soil by drawing up nutrients from deep in the earth. Then, leaves that fall from the trees mix with the topsoil and decompose, which returns nutrients back into the earth. Coffee is often grown on sloping land and mountainsides.

Mincho, a member of the Santa Anita Co-op grows Cacao Trees among his coffee plants, he can sell the fruit and the ones that fall contribute rich nutrients to his soil. 

Mincho, a member of the Santa Anita Co-op grows Cacao Trees among his coffee plants, he can sell the fruit and the ones that fall contribute rich nutrients to his soil. 

On this landscape, the nutrient rich topsoil is easily washed away by rain, but the canopy cover from shade trees offers more protection to the topsoil. Not to mention, having a greater number of root systems in the soil decreases erosion in comparison to sun grown coffee. 

Conversely, sun grown coffee offers none of these benefits for the soil. Another factor of monocropping is its contribution to soil degradation. The soil does not get replenished with nutrients from other plants and decaying plant matter, so synthetic or organic fertilizers must be added to the soil. Furthermore, when extra fertilizers are added to the soil, and then washed away with rain, the surrounding ecosystem experiences negative consequences. One of these consequences is called eutrophication. Eutrophication occurs when excess fertilizers containing nitrate and phosphate are washed into rivers and lakes. The higher levels of nitrate or phosphate causes algae to bloom. These algae blooms deplete the oxygen levels in the water and cause other organisms to suffer. The worst case scenario of eutrophication is the creation of dead zones where nothing can live in the water. Eutrophication is a serious issue for Lake Atitlan here in Guatemala. In recent years there have been toxic algae blooms.

Demonstrating why shade grown is more eco-friendly is fairly straight forward, however it is important that this cultivation method is farmer friendly as well. Incorporating different types of trees turns coffee production into an agroforestry system. The farmers that work within the partner cooperatives of  De La Gente experience both the economic and environmental benefits by cultivating coffee with shade. Although there is a potential loss in yield when coffee is shade-grown, farmers are able to earn more money despite that loss by selling their crop as specialty coffee. The cooling effect of shade produces higher quality, denser beans that can be sold for a higher price to specialty coffee roasters. In addition, the different trees farmers grow can provide them with more income aside from their coffee crop. Farmers in the San Miguel Cooperatives grow trees for firewood and for other crops like avocados, bananas, oranges or peaches for personal consumption or to sell, bringing them both a personal and economic benefit.

Shade grown coffee is more beneficial to the environment because it mimics the natural way that wild coffee grows. Coffee plants in the wild are part of a balanced ecosystem, so when we remove the complexity of that ecosystem we disrupt this balance. There is greater sustainability with shade cultivated coffee for both the environment and the farmer. Purchase a bag of De la Gente coffee online and show your support for small-holder coffee farmers growing shade grown coffee.