Coffee farms are as diverse as the people who build them. At one end there are forest-like shade farms where the canopy over the coffee trees makes you feel as if you’re in a jungle. The other end there are mono-culture full sun farms with their neat lines of coffee standing completely exposed to sunlight.
If you stand in one of these forest farms you’ll hear birds, see animals, experience a whole ecosystem. On a full sun farm you’ll hear very little. The dust from the dry arid soil blows in the wind, covering your boots with a fine red sand. These places don't feel like vibrant eco-systems, they feel more like factories. Although you’re outside surrounded by trees and there can be a feeling that you are not really in nature.
What is Shade Coffee?
Farms which have trees whose branches hang above the coffee trees are called shaded farms. These trees block the sunlight from the coffee trees which slows the growth of the coffee fruit. The shade trees restrict the coffee plants access to sunlight and so slows photosynthesis and in turn the ripening of the coffee fruit. This slow ripening is associated with higher quality coffee that is sweater and more vibrant than fruit grown in full sun. There is no universal definition of how many trees a shaded farm must have but many studies use the definition of having 60% or more tree canopy.
The Environmental Benefits of Shade Coffee
Carbon Output & Carbon Capture
Shaded coffee farms are a bulwark against the climate crisis and have a much smaller carbon footprint than full sun farms. Farms with shade trees need between 6.2–7.3 kg CO2 kg to grow each kg of parchment coffee compared to full sun farms which take 9.0–10.8 kg. With 5.49 billion kg of coffee traded in 2022 moving to shaded farming could save the world between 7.4 to 20.2 million tons of C02 per-year. This is more than the combined C02 emissions of the 37 million people who live in Burundi, Rwanda, Costa Rica, and El Salvador.
The farms with trees also sequester more carbon than their non-shaded counterparts. Testing shows 189 t C/ha of carbon sequestered in shaded to 113 t C/ha for unshaded or about 55.4 t C/ha for urban areas. This means a hectare of shaded coffee farm stores the yearly carbon footprint of 22 Brits who themselves emit almost double the global average. In El Salvador for example the land for coffee farm stores carbon equivalent of almost 3.5x the whole population of the country.
Wild Animal Habitat Support
Farms with shade trees tend to support higher levels of wildlife compared to farms that are full sun. Birds are anywhere between 3 and 6 times more likely to live in shade coffee farms than full sun. Overall shaded farms have similar quantities of wildlife as forests. This is critical where areas for wildlife has dramatically reduced like Central America which has seen 23% of its forests destroyed since the year 2000.
El Salvador where 90% of farms are shaded - compared with only 24% of coffee farms globally they have lost 90% of its forest cover and the remaining 80% is located on shaded grown coffee farms. The loss of habitat and connected forested corridors is blamed for the extinction of jaguars & cougars in the country. The need for these corridors is why farms who adopt full sun but retain parcels of protected nature reserves may not be enough.
Coffee Producer Income From Shaded Farms
A coffee producer's choice to build their farm as a shaded or full sun is one driven by many factors. The norms and standards of where they’re from, how it already is, and what they can afford to do are major drivers. It's fair that producers focus on growing coffee in a way that is financially sustainable.
Older studies comparing the farm yields between shade and full sun farms showed full sun farms to produce more coffee than full shaded farms. These studies compared extremes, between zero shade and complete shade. Recent meta-data studies show the level of shade on a farm is a spectrum and so in turn produces a spectrum of yields. Coffee cultivars are effected by shade differently, with some even performing better in shade.
Non-shaded farms naturally have less nutrients in their soil. This means they need more fertilisers and chemicals to ensure the soil can support the coffee trees. These fertilisers do increase the nutrients of the soil but they also increase the acidity of the soil. High acidity soil harms coffee so farmers add more inputs to make the soil hospitable. Shade trees enrich a farms soil while not negatively effecting the soils health.
Shaded coffee farms are more difficult to do fully mechanised farming on from the obstructions of the trees to heavy machinery. This equipment does seem it can reduce the cost of harvesting by up to 59.9% compared to fully manual harvesting. This can be offset by the adoption of semi-mechanical practices which have shown to reduce costs by 27% and can be implemented on shaded farms. Medium shaded environments have lower growing costs which helps offset these increased harvesting costs.
How to Support Shade Grown Coffee
It is very difficult to know if the coffee you’re purchasing was grown on a shaded farm unless it is specifically stated on the bag or by the roaster. There are ways to help increase the likelihood your coffee isn’t from a full sun farm, like trying to buy from smallholder farmers who are more likely to have shaded farms.
Countries like Peru, Panama, Haiti, and India have the most shaded coffee farms. El Salvador, Bolivia, Mexico, Kenya, Tanzania, Colombia, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Guatemala are close behind. Brazil, Burundi, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia are among the most likely to be full sun. This isn’t to say all farms from these places are good or bad. It is to say some countries have producing traditions that make a higher likelihood of shade or full sun.
Like so much in coffee the best way to make sure your coffee aligns with your values is to ask questions about where it comes from and how it was made. The more in demand farm auditing and a real connection between you and its origin the more likely you are to find the coffee that matches your values.