Thursday, January 14, 2010

Birding Commentary: Your Coffee and Our Birds

Hmm, what seems to be happening here?
Well it looks like a man walking up to a box.
That box appears to be a soap box, and he’s now standing on top of that box.
Let’s listen in….

I’m sure our readers are familiar with the situation “brewing” in the coffee world of sustainable shade-grown versus unsustainable sun-grown coffee plants. If not, then please allow me this short lesson:

Most of the coffee that is consumed across the US (we drink the most) is grown in a non-sustainable manner by clearing many acres of Central and South American forest and planting rows of coffee plants. Heavy pesticide and yearly fertilizer use goes hand-in-hand with this way of farming because coffee plants by nature grow best in shaded forests. Growing in the sun is relatively new to this plant species and needs help with the “bugs”. This mass-produced form tends to get pretty high yields.

In shade-grown coffee or “rustic” plantations we see plants grown within a forest or a lightly shaded forest. No need for pesticides or fertilizers here, and the ecological practice of organic treatment benefits a wide array of other surrounding plants, insects, birds, and other living organisms. These better-tasting coffee beans are of a higher quality but often yield less than sun-grown.

OK, so these are the two main forms of coffee bean production. Others exist but I will not dwell on them. Coffee beans are grown, harvested, and then sold to buyers, roasters, or sold directly to a coffee bean processing plant (Folgers, Maxwell House,..etc). The consumer then makes his or her choice of coffee at the supermarket.

But according to several recent articles and a good blog many farmers who have given organic, shade-grown coffee a try are giving up and reverting back to sun-grown coffee. To those of us who enjoy an ecologically sound and fair-traded cup of organic coffee every day….this is disturbing news.

Apparently the buyers of some organic coffees (McDonalds, Walmart and Starbucks to name a few) aren’t paying the top premium price that the farmer needs to cover his costs. This in turn drives the premium down and so farmers say, “Hey, why should I break my back and go into debt producing this high-grade coffee when I can grow low-grade coffee w/pesticides much cheaper and still get a good yield?”

Well for this coffee drinker selling out to a cheaper, and ecologically damaging production method is not in my books! I am prepared to spend a bit more for a good and “just” cup of java….are you?

Part II

Since I write about birds I’d like to explain how shade-grown coffee benefits some of our Adirondack “summer-visiting birds” or those birds that migrate in spring from the farthest reaches of Central America to the backyards and forests of our Adirondacks.

According to some Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center writings, a shade-grown coffee plantation can harbor over 150 species of bird. Here they find plenty of insects, fruits, and nectar to feed on. Birds tend to do well when habitats are not altered or destroyed. There are no benefits to birds on sun-grown coffee plantations.

That’s the beauty of shade-grown plantations; it takes an eco-friendly form of growing and merges it right into an eco-sensitive habitat(rain forest). So it’s not so much the coffee plants that birds need but rather the whole, healthy ecosystem of the intact forest that they(and the grower) benefit from.

Most of our summer-visiting warbler species as well as, vireos, flycatchers, hummingbirds, tanagers, orioles, and some finches spend the winter in the tropics. They need a habitat that will sustain them(and the other local tropical birds) for several months before their northward journey’s. A sun-grown coffee plantation will not supply this need.

So, what are we to do. Well first I encourage you to drink organic, fair-traded, and shade-grown coffee whenever and wherever you can. Yes McDonalds and Walmart sells this to the masses but educate yourself before purchasing it from larger retailers and chains. Please go to your local supermarkets, coffee shops, or natural food stores and ask them to carry shade-grown coffee. All our migratory birds thank you!

Better yet, keep your money in the state or region and patronize Wild Birds Unlimited in Saratoga Springs for your shade-grown coffee needs!

Photo of a Wilson’s warbler by Will Elder NPS

Related Stories

Community news stories come from press releases and other notices from organizations, businesses, state agencies and other groups. Submit your contributions to Almanack Editor Melissa Hart at


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