How listening to the coffee plant can lead us to best practices for premium taste and enhanced forest health.

Over the millennia, agriculture has extracted a heavy toll from planetary ecosystems…with modern industrialized agribusiness ramping up rates of deforestation, habitat loss, soil erosion, groundwater pollution and ultimately species loss. Coffee farming, especially sun-farmed (no canopy) industrial monocropping, is not exempt. But in the quest for better taste, the coffee tree leads us into some dark corners that ironically provide enlightenment.

In practice and proof, small lots of shade-grown coffee have consistently outperformed sun-farmed coffees from large mega-farms that treat coffee solely as a bulk commodity in a consistent race to the bottom to provide the cheapest cup of coffee through huge-scale, low-wages and large inputs of synthetic petro-based fertilizer and pesticides.

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Coffee is a shade-loving understory plant that evolves its own unique flavor profile based on an interrelated web of variables—soil composition, water quality, rainfall, altitude, soil microbiology, sunlight (or lack of it), soil fungi, insect and animal grazers—in short, an elusive but critical coffee quality called terroir. It is in the realm of the understory where we find award-winning artisanal coffees that command record-breaking prices at auction.

Beyond market value, however, there are several ecological advantages to organic shade-farmed coffee.  

“When coffees are grown in the shade of other plants, the biodiversity of the landscape sees a benefit,” writes coffee expert Liz Clayton and author of  Nice Coffee Time. “Native plants that shade coffee trees—which can range from forest trees like cedars, to fruit trees  like banana, orange, lemon, avocado, and soursop—are planted to create a harmonious nitrogen balance in the soil, and, over time, effect a specific, coffee-beneficial microclimate. The insect, animal, and bird landscape sees a positive influence as well, as biodiverse climates promote a sustainability of more species, which means greater survival of these species and increased pollination.”

Over the last two decades there have been increasing efforts to weave strong threads of agroecology and rainforest restoration in with specialty coffee farming. The results have been not only increased forest biodiversity and better coffee, but through branding practices like the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Bird Friendly certification program, increased buyer loyalty.

“By reviewing more than 50 studies on shade-grown coffee farms in regions ranging from Central and South America to Indonesia over the past 15 years, the SMBC can now make the case that shade-grown coffee production is the next best thing to a natural forest, “ states Robert Rice of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.

Six years ago Joseph Brodsky of Ninety Plus made an overriding commitment on his Gesha Estates farm to what he calls “stewardship of taste” by listening to what and how coffee wants to be. By entering into a relationship with the coffee plant, Joseph was compelled to factor in the entire ecosystem—biological, social and economic—that creates a superior cup of coffee.

“Here in Panama, the day we started, this was a cattle farm backed by forests,” says Brodsky. “Now it’s a forest with a recovering forest in the foreground. Every time we come back there are more and more plants and animals.  The wildlife recovers. The coffee gets better. The people are better paid every day, and we’ve got better taste to work with every day. It’s taking that stewardship of taste and bringing revenue back to the farm that can reforest lands instead of the trend of deforestation that we see in the world that’s all around us. To take a broken system and replace it with something that comes alive has been the most incredible reward.  Nature’s conspiring for us.”