Our Position Paper on Shade
Why Shade-Grown?In order to understand the benefits of shade to coffee, we need to know a little about coffee's natural history. Coffee is native to the mountains of western Ethiopia, where it thrives in the cool, humid cloud forests and where, over thousands of years, it has adapted to grow in the shade along the forest floor. More recently, as coffee cultivation spread throughout Asia and the Americas, coffee became an important cash crop. In the twentieth century, scientists developed coffee hybrids that yielded more fruit per plant but which required intense sun, so coffee producers cleared huge swaths of forest to farm hybrid coffee in open, sunny fields. They found that they could produce two or three times as much coffee as a typical shade farm could produce, but also that these sun-dependent plants require a lot of chemicals to survive.
Sun coffee farms depend on pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers, and coffee bushes that grow unprotected need replanting more often than their shade-grown counterparts. These immense fields of sun-grown coffee have caused major soil erosion and led to environmental degradation all over Central and South America, and as a result we have witnessed a sad decline in the populations of North American migratory songbirds who use these forests as stopping, feeding and mating grounds. In addition to these environmental hazards, sun-grown hybrid coffees don’t taste nearly as good as their shade-grown cousins. But because their productivity leads to increased profitability for large farms, these sun-grown coffees have become the dominant ingredient in commercial coffee blends.
Better for the Environment and Better for QualityLuckily, a number of dedicated, quality-focused farmers have continued to grow traditional varieties of coffee on shaded farms. Coffee bushes mature more slowly under shade and require more hand labor than technology-intensive sun plantations, so shade-grown coffees tend to come from smaller, family farms. Shaded coffee farms are models of sustainable agriculture: a canopy of diverse indigenous trees nourishes the soil, prevents erosion and provides a habitat for all types of fauna, including many bird species. Likewise, the slow-maturing coffee plant varieties that grow in the shade are often heirloom cultivars whose deep, complex flavors are unparalleled and impossible to replicate in sun-grown conditions. Time and time again, we find that these shade-grown, lower-yielding heirloom coffee varieties produce the best qualities in the cup.
A Real Commitment to ShadeCounter Culture Coffee has been committed to environmentally responsible coffee cultivation since day one, and we introduced the Sanctuary line of shade grown coffees in 1996. Through Sanctuary, we began educating consumers and promoting shade-grown coffees from Central and South America in hopes that the shaded farms from which the coffees came would create a series of sanctuaries along migratory bird paths. To this day, all of the shaded farms that contribute coffee to Sanctuary are certified organic and some have obtained shade certifications from third-party organizations such as the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and Rainforest Alliance. In addition, we donate 10 percent of the proceeds from every bag of Sanctuary coffee to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which funds environmental education programs and conservation projects across the Americas.
Beyond Shade Certifications: Advocating Healthy EcosystemsWe will always be passionately committed to sourcing and promoting shade-grown coffee, but for a number of reasons, we also purchase coffee that does not qualify for our shade-grown label. From region to region, coffee-growing communities are extremely diverse, and in sourcing coffee from many different countries around the world, we have learned that many climates simply cannot support the type of lush tree shade we see in others. In those countries where shade is possible, we support it. Where we cannot find shaded coffee, we work with farmers who are committed to sustainable agricultural practices and the preservation of the natural environment. Each of our coffees represents real commitments to quality, transparency, and environmental responsibility by not only our partnering coffee farmers, but also the consumers who support our mission to locate and source the most authentic, delicious coffees imaginable.