Importance of farm shading
In order to qualify as specialty, coffee has to fulfill several criteria, including transparent origin. Although you may already find coffee labels overloaded with information about the coffee and the farm it came from, there is one piece of information that is, unfortunately, usually still missing.

In order to fully develop their taste, coffee trees require special conditions to grow. What doesn’t influence growth so much, is shading of the plantation. 25% of coffee trees in the world are fully shaded, 35% partially and 40% not at all. You must be asking a question - if it doesn’t influence the end product, why should I care about it?

Despite living in an age when deforestation is finally starting to slow down, a great struggle is still ahead of us in mending the damage already done. As you probably know, deforestation is the greatest problem in the tropics - which is where coffee also grows best. The soil there is usually very poor in nutrients, which are usually linked to other plants. Deforestation also worsens problems with drought, flooding and landslides, not to mention the general loss of biodiversity.

That’s why agroforestry is the ideal way forward - not only can we help the environment regain its strength, even farmers can gain a lot of benefits from this endeavour. Many farmers are afraid that reducing the solar gains on their plants will reduce their crops quality, but the benefits strongly outweigh the negatives. Let’s look at different types of coffee farm shading first:

Farm type Schematic Description
Wild Growth
Natural Forest Coffee is sometimes harvested from wild trees which are an original part of naturally occurring rainforests. This is an uncommon practice, which happens pretty much only in the Southwest and Southeast of Ethiopia. The yields are extremely low and are valued mostly for being the most traditional type of coffee, both by production, genetics and taste.
Fully Shaded
Traditional Rustic Coffee trees are planted to replace the undergrowth of naturally occuring rainforests. This is a rare practice common for the small scale farming of Ethiopia. The yields are still relatively low and are especially valued for the ecological implications of the production.
Traditional polyculture Coffee trees are naturally shaded by large forest or fruit trees, which are selected from local naturally occurring species.
Semi-shaded
Commercial polyculture Here, all naturally occurring vegetation is removed and shading trees are specially selected according to all the aforementioned criteria. This doesn't mean though that such plantation are unhealthy for the environment, only that they are completely under human control. Shading is only partial, and that seems to be the ideal way for growing coffee.
Shaded monoculture The cover of shade here is even smaller. Essentially, the uniform field of coffee trees is broken here and there by a tall tree to provide shade, but unfortunately, the vegetative cover is minimal and provides little benefit to the ecosystem. This is especially typical for large coffee estates in formerly colonized countries.
Unshaded
Fragmented Monoculture Fragmented monocultures are such orchards with no direct shading or mixture with other plants, but they are split into smaller segments. The gaps are filled with natural vegetation and serve as a biocorridor, protect against erosion, etc. This is common for more developped coffee producing countries such as Brazil. They can be quite friendly to the environment, which depends deeply on the density of the fragmentation.
Unshaded Monoculture Monocultures consist entirely of coffee trees without any other vegetation either above or among the coffee trees. The yields are the highest, but at slight expense of quality. The lack of shading means the plantation requires more maintenance. The effect on the environment is highly negative.
The benefits
The benefits of shaded plantations can be separated into two categories - benefits for the environment, and benefits for the farmers. Let's look at the farmer first. A typical farmer is financially dependent on coffee profits from one or two harvest seasons annually. For starters, introducing shading trees can mean more profit. For example, many fruit trees are suitable for shading coffee trees. Arboreal apiculture is another option, which, apart from producing honey, can assist the coffee trees in pollinating. Diversity of plants also keeps a more balanced mix of nutrients in the soil, again boosting the yield of coffee.

Regarding the farmers' fear of harvesting less - that might seem true at first, but in the grander scale, shaded coffee trees have a much longer life and require less maintenance than unshaded ones thanks to reduced stress from the sun and weather, which also means smaller upkeep and restoration expenses. And even though the coffee trees may yield less kilograms of coffee, the beans maturing process is slower, and thus they grow slightly bigger and tastier and yield a much higher price on the market.

Then, there are benefits for both parties. For example, the mentioned bees do not only help the coffee trees, they help the entire ecosystem with reproduction and are one of the pillars of balance in nature. Trees are also a natural habitat for countless bird species, which, again, are a vital part of the ecosystem, but can also protect coffee trees from invasive insects.

Most importantly, the rainforest tree canopies are rightfully called the “jewels of the Earth”. About 50% of all living species on our planet call rainforests their home, with the vast majority of them residing in the canopy layer. The beauty of coffee is that it is possible to cultivate it without destroying the natural habitat of countless species or interrupting their migrational routes, all while helping keep our atmosphere in a healthy balanced state.
“Another continent of life remains to be discovered, not upon the Earth, but one to two hundred feet above it, extending over thousands of square miles of the rainforest canopy.”
- William Beebe, 1917
To be entirely fair, we should also mention the negatives. It is true that purely unshaded plantations offer greatest yields. But as we mentioned, this can be outweighed by the potentially increased quality of shaded coffee. It is thus up to the farmer to choose the path which will be the best choice for both his market goals and the environment he lives in. This is also where we step in - as the saying goes, we vote with our wallets. By choosing the right products, you can help support those farmers that help protect our planet, while still supplying you with the best-tasting coffee. And thanks to smart choices like these, we can ensure that generations that come after us can keep enjoying the same coffee and same planet as we do.


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