Back to the Roots: History of Arbor Day Coffee

By Jon Ferguson | December 1, 2019

Did you know the Baltimore orioles are responsible for the Arbor Day Coffee program? To be clear, we are talking about the beautiful and colorful bird, icterus galbula, not the team that produced Cal Ripken Jr., one of the greatest baseball players of all time. Baltimore oriole birds find their winter grounds in Latin America, drawn to the wide selection of fruits and nectar available during North America’s dry and cold winter months.

Almost 25 years ago, John Rosenow, the founder of the Arbor Day Foundation, learned about the Baltimore oriole and other migratory bird populations that were at risk in Latin America as a result of increasing deforestation. To take a closer look at the issues affecting migratory routes of North American bird populations, John Rosenow and a fellow trustee member at the Arbor Day Foundation ventured to Chiapas, Mexico with Conservational International to tour areas that became a winter home for migratory birds.

A Haven for Biodiversity

During the tour, Rosenow explored several coffee farms covered in native shade trees known as Inga. These fast-growing, evergreen, nitrogen fixating Inga trees were intermixed throughout most of the coffee farms in the region, providing fruit and nectar to orioles and other migratory bird populations in the winter.

According to several bird surveys conducted throughout Chiapas, Mexico, scientists have found more Baltimore orioles on coffee farms with Inga shade trees than on farms with extensive tree cover or in mature forests, supporting the case that shade-grown coffee could increase biodiversity in these areas (Craves, 2009).

Coffee farms in Chiapas are well known for their traditional practices, combining native tree species with food crops, coffee, and other agricultural commodities to help maintain a rich ecosystem with plant and wildlife diversity. In addition to providing a refuge for migratory birds in the winter, coffee farms in Chiapas serve an important role in helping to maintain the thick buffer area surrounding the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve — an officially designated World Biosphere Reserve MAB-UNESCO site.

Benefits of Farming with Trees

There are numerous benefits to farming with trees, both on coffee farms and on agricultural farms. Trees help buffer strong winds, protecting the coffee’s ability to flower and produce coffee cherries. Trees help regulate temperature changes from hot sunny days and cool nights, helping to strengthen plants. Additionally, trees absorb nitrogen, enriching the soil for coffee plants to feed from.  

John Rosenow was inspired to help protect migratory bird populations by supporting coffee producers who kept their ecosystem diverse and healthy. And when asked why the Arbor Day Foundation decided to start offering coffee to the membership base, he replied, “it was a personal way to connecting people to helping save critical rain forest areas by purchasing coffee from farmers who are doing it right.”

We are inspired by our founder to continue to share these stories as a reminder that our work through the Arbor Day Coffee program, remains essential to the health of the planet, wildlife, and people.

Learn more about the shade-grown difference.

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