Why Shade-Grown Coffee?

One of my favorite things about farmers markets is that people care about where their food comes from. Every weekend, at least a handful of people wander over to Kew Park’s Coffee stand at the Palisades Farmers Market in Northwest DC and say “tell me about your coffee.” To which I reply, “Well, it is shade-grown on a family-owned farm in Jamaica.” Sometimes, inquisitive patrons continue, “what exactly is shade-grown coffee? Is it better than other kinds of coffee? If so, why and for whom?” To answer these questions, we must go all the way back to the beginning…of coffee.

Legend has it that coffee was discovered hundreds of years ago in the highlands of Ethiopia. A herdsman was watching over his goats when he noticed some strange behavior: after eating a certain bright red berry, goats became especially giddy and energetic. When he tasted the fruit himself, he experienced the same energizing effects. Slowly, a method was developed for roasting, grinding, and brewing the beans into what we know today as ‘coffee.’ Over the next several centuries, the drink became popular across the Middle East, Europe, and eventually spread to Southeast Asia and the Americas.

Coffee trees thrive in constant-cool temperatures in tropical forests across Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Traditionally, this meant high-altitude forests under thick canopies. As demand grew, coffee farmers needed faster and cheaper techniques. Beginning in the 1960s and 70s, scientists developed hybrid species of coffee trees that could be grown in direct sunlight. Farmers began clear-cutting forests and replanting the land with row after row of coffee trees.  Although berries were easier to harvest, without the ecological system supporting the plantation, trees were more susceptible to diseases and therefore required more chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Then, in the late 1990s and 2000s, shade-grown coffee came on the scene.

The “shade‐grown coffee concept" was introduced by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center at the First Sustainable Coffee Congress in 1996.  Shade-grown plantations have a higher number of tree and plant species than a mono-crop coffee plantation. Canopy species are mixed in with coffee and other trees, mimicking the structure of a natural forest. The different species use different nutrients in the soil, and leaf-litter acts as a natural fertilizer. Higher levels of canopy-cover and varying root structures also stabilize the soil and prevent erosion, resulting in cleaner water and safer conditions during rainy seasons.

Animal and insect species also benefit from having a more varied selection of trees. Shade-grown farms support larger populations of migratory and resident birds, reptiles, ants, butterflies, and bats than their sun-grown counterparts.  In fact, shade-grown coffee farmland has been found to be the next best thing to natural forests to support a healthy ecosystem. Studies have shown 15-30% more bird species living on shade-grown coffee farms compared with sun-grown. Kew Park's farm is home to over 40 species of birds, including Jamaican Oriole, Saffron Finch, Orangequit, and Red-billed Streamertail, among many others. The full list is at the bottom of this post. The birds that live there also tend to be healthier with more species of fruits, nuts, and bugs to support their diet. The farm also benefits from having the birds as larger bird populations naturally defend the coffee trees from disease and insects.

So why is shade-grown coffee better than regular coffee? First, it requires less chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Birds eat the bugs, which means that less pesticide needs to be used to protect the trees. Plant diseases thrive on mono-crop plantations, but the higher species diversity on a shade-grown coffee farm make it harder for diseases to spread. More nutrients in the soil from leaf litter and other organic inputs not only reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers, they also make the coffee trees healthier, and more able to fight off disease. Plus, it tastes better. The berries ripen more slowly, giving the beans a more complex flavor. At Kew Park, the berries are also hand-picked, which means that every bean has developed a mature flavor before it reaches your mug.

But don’t take our word for it! If you want to learn more about the wonderful world of shade-grown coffee, take a look at these articles and publications:

Bird List


Kew Park, Betheltown, Ja

Date 6/28/04
Observer Matt Johnson
Institute Humboldt State University
Common Name Genus and species Family Jamaican Endemic?
Red-Tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis Accipitridae n
Black Swift Cypseloides niger Apodidae n
Antillean Palm Swift Tachornis phoenicobia Apodidae n
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis Ardeidae n
Turkey Vulture Cathartes aura Cathartidae n
Bananaquit Coereba flaveola Coerebinae n
White-crowned Pigeon Columba leucocephala Columbidae n
Common Ground Dove Columbina passerina Columbidae n
Caribbean Dove Leptotila jamaicensis Columbidae n
White-winged Dove Zenaida asiatica Columbidae n
Zenaida Dove Zenaida aurita Columbidae n
Smooth-billed Ani Crotophaga ani Cuculidae n
Chestnut-Bellied Cuckoo Hyetornis pluvialis Cuculidae y
Orangequit Euneornis campestris Emberizinae y
Greater-Antillean Bullfinch Loxigilla violacea Emberizinae n
Saffron Finch Sicalis flaveola Emberizinae n
Black-Faced Grassquit Tiaris bicolor Emberizinae n
Yellow-Faced Grassquit Tiaris olivacea Emberizinae n
Chestnut-Manakin Lonchura malacca Estrildidae n
American Kestrel Falco sparverius Falconidae n
Cave Swallow Hirundo fulva Hirundinidae n
Jamaican Oriole Icterus leucopteryx Icterinae n
Greater-Antillean Grackle Quiscalis niger Icterinae n
Northern Mockingbird Mimus polyglottos Mimidae n
Jamaican Woodpecker Melanerpes radiolatus Picidae y
Olive-Throated Parakeet Aratinga nana Psittacidae n
Jamaican Euphonia Euphonia jamaica Thraupinae y
Jamaican Stripe-Headed Tanager Spindalis zena nigricephala Thraupinae y
Jamaican Tody Todus todus Todidae y
Jamaican Mango Anthracothorax mango Trochilidae y
Vervain Hummingbird Mellisuga minima Trochilidae n
Red-Billed Streamertail Trochilus polytmus polytmus Trochilidae y
White-Chinned Thrush Turdus aurantius Turdidae y
White-Eyed Thrush Turdus jamaicensis Turdidae y
Jamaican Greater-Antillean Peewee Elaenia fallax fallax Tyrannidae y
Sad Flycatcher Myiarchus barbirostris Tyrannidae y
Stolid Flycatcher Myiarchus stolidus Tyrannidae n
Rufous-Tailed Flycatcher Myiarchus validus Tyrannidae y
Jamaican Elaenia Myiopagis cotta Tyrannidae y
Jamaican Becard Pachyramphus niger Tyrannidae y
Loggerhead Kingbird Tyrannus caudifasciatus Tyrannidae n
Grey Kingbird Tyrannus dominicensis Tyrannidae n
Black-Whiskered Vireo Vireo altiloquus Vireonidae n
Jamaican Vireo Vireo modestus Vireonidae y
number %
Total Birds 44 100
Jamaican Endemic 16 36.36363636
Other 28 63.63636364
Family number %
Accipitridae 1 2.27
Apodidae 2 4.55
Ardeidae 1 2.27
Cathartidae 1 2.27
Coerebinae 1 2.27
Columbidae 5 11.36
Cuculidae 2 4.55
Emberizinae 5 11.36
Estrildidae 1 2.27
Falconidae 1 2.27
Hirundinidae 1 2.27
Icterinae 2 4.55
Mimidae 1 2.27
Picidae 1 2.27
Psittacidae 1 2.27
Thraupinae 2 4.55
Todidae 1 2.27
Trochilidae 3 6.82
Turdidae 2 4.55
Tyrannidae 8 18.18
Vireonidae 2 4.55
Total 44 100