Earlier this year, during the dry season, I had the opportunity to visit with a group of farmers in the sun-baked department of Usulután in eastern El Salvador. These farmers live at the lower bounds of coffeelands, as low as 400-500 meters above sea level. At this elevation, the sun is punishing and water is scarce. The only hope for sustainable coffee farming is effective shade management (and even then it is not clear whether shade alone will be enough to mitigate the impacts of climate change on coffee). When one middle-aged farmer observed that the leaves fell from the coffee plants that were directly exposed to the sun, an older one in the group shook his head and offered this wisdom: “Shade is the foundation. Without shade, there is no coffee.”
As I explain to all my coffee-drinking friends back in the States who are good enough to listen, shade is indeed the foundation of any concept of sustainable coffee production. While not all shade-grown coffee is organic, all organic coffee that stands a chance of survival is shade-grown.
The shade of a diverse forest canopy provides essential benefits for coffee. Diverse forest systems enrich the soil with nutrients the coffee needs, and can create a natural balance between the pests that threaten coffee and their predators. The roots of the trees increase the humidity of the soil by trapping more rainwater there. Shade reduces the temperature and increases humidity on the forest floor where coffee is grown. The net effect of well-managed shade: improved productivity and quality, which means more income for farmers and a better cup for us.