"In many mountain regions, high quality coffee can be produced with minimal impacts when cultivated organically and planted in a natural forest canopy of about 50-percent shade. This is particularly important, since the coffee-growing region that spans the Caribbean and Central and South America is also one of vast bio-diversity, and these shade grown farms retain desperately needed habitat for many species, including increasingly endangered orioles, warblers, waxwings, and other feathered Neotropical migrants.
Traditionally coffee was grown in mixed forest shade, where the cherries mature slowly, enhancing aroma and taste. Then in the 1960s and 1970s the 'Green Revolution' transformed cultivation practices to technified 'sun plantations' that destroy the species-rich canopy in order to make room for high-yielding hybrids that require heavy inputs of fertilizers and pesticides. Forest coffee was replaced by industrial monocultures of clearcut coffee. Diverse tree complexes were replaced by living plants, but they could hardly be described as green....
'Shade grown' coffee got its start in the mid 1990s when biologists from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) began to make the connection between migratory Neotropical songbirds in the North, and habitat and mid-elevation coffee farms in Central and South America, where the birds wintered."
Bird ecologist Julie Crave writes about her research on migratory birds and shade grown coffee in her blog Coffee and Conservation - Are your Beans for the Birds at www.coffeehabitat.com. She writes about the benefits of shade grown coffee as well as the complexities in certifying it.
Velasquez Family Coffee is grown in the cloud-forest of the Comayagua Mountains in Honduras. During the late 1970's and early 1980's some of the original old growth forest was cut when Guillermo's father, wanting to be a progressive farmer, took the advice of agricultural extentionists from Brazil. Within a few short years, the disadvantages of this technified approach to farming were evident when a fungus swept in and destroyed his coffee farm. Ever since then, he and his sons, and many of their neighbors, have been committed to a more environmentally friendly approach to growing coffee.
Since that time, the old growth forest that remains has been protected. A few trees estimated to be over 500 years old can still be seen on the farm. Secondary growth forest has been encouraged and traditional hard-wood trees are being planted through-out the area. Without doing an extensive audit or third-party certification, we would describe the shade forest through-out our family's coffee plots to be mostly traditional poly-culture (visit this link for a helpful diagram) defined by Julie Crave as"grown under a combination of native forest trees and planted tree and plant species, including fruit and vegetables both for the farmer and for market, fuel wood, medicinal plants, etc." There are a few open areas used for grazing cows (between 5 and 15 at any given time) and a soccer field used by the community, but generally the farm is nicely forested.
Because pictures are worth a 1000 words, here are a few photos of our family's coffee plots.