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What is Coffee Agroforestry?

By Jon Ferguson | January 25, 2021

Within the past few years, we’ve started using the phrase coffee agroforestry to better describe the shade-grown coffee process. Since this phrase is still pretty fresh in the mainstream world of coffee and agriculture, let’s look at what it means.  

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines agroforestry as “the intentional integration of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems to create environmental, economic, and social benefits.” They explain that for an agricultural management practice to be called agroforestry, it must also be intentional, intensive, integrated, and interactive.  Shade-grown coffee, in essence, is coffee that is grown with the intentional integration of trees and shrubs to create environmental, economic, and social benefits.

Coffee Agroforestry: a relatively new phrase

According to Google Books Ngram Viewer, which searches the historical use of terms and phrases, “coffee agroforestry” was not found prior to 1980 and wasn’t popularized until 2000.   

Courtesy of Google Books Ngram Viewer 

Ecological studies have typically been on the fringes of scientific research due to a lack of clear understanding of the relationships between plants, animals, and humans. On top of the complexities of mother nature, we have human nature, which has intentionally designed landscapes to be financially productive. This battle between man and nature continues today, but there is a growing acknowledgment that a symbiotic relationship must be developed to balance our needs and the needs of the earth.

Setting the Standards for Coffee Agroforestry

Given the fact that natural environments are vastly unique (climate, weather, topography, etc.), the standardization of certified practices put in place has created a very complex and often obscured set of rules that are extremely difficult to apply. Consider for a moment that agricultural production of coffee in forested landscapes occurs in more than 50 countries scattered across the globe.

This is where Arbor Day Coffee and coffee agroforestry recommendations and standards are positioned. Arbor Day Coffee focuses on a holistic approach to balance the needs of nature, community, and their economic well-being while integrating the long-term role trees play in achieving this balance.  Arbor Day Coffee is inclusive and evaluates each farm situation with these things in mind:

  • Does it support healthy coffee agroforestry practices?
  • How does it achieve this, and what is the impact on the community?  

This is the difference with our shade-grown coffee. We support and often buy coffees that are from certified Bird Friendly® farms, organic farms, Rainforest Alliance-certified farms, and many more programs that follow the same drive to sustain healthy lands. We don’t stop at looking only for a particular certification. It’s only the beginning. 

The Benefits of This Approach

The benefits to traditional shade-friendly coffees are vast, and we have covered these aspects in previous blogs, along with a live panel discussion with the director of the film Shade Grown Coffee. But what is new to the conversation is expanding the scope and understanding of how to balance nature and agricultural production in a healthy manner — for economies, communities, and the planet.   

Coffee agroforestry has many facets. There are several strategies, such as conservation approach, reforestation, afforestation, and forest management practices. Producers who lean on nature to provide natural defense mechanisms and understand alternative methods often show more resiliency with richer soils, better environmental quality, and better coffee!

For example, many farmers have started to use precision agricultural techniques to find the precise balance between the use of agricultural chemicals like nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. They have also found specific types of trees and coffee varieties that work well together to help create vibrant, productive landscapes for wildlife preservation, community health, and a healthy crop. 

Coffee agroforestry is simply a more technical term that hopefully will broaden our world’s view of what shade-grown coffee can be. Coffee that is grown with the consideration for forested landscapes surrounding or scattered throughout coffee fields is a beautiful sight to see…and makes for a pretty good cup of coffee too.  

Learn more about the shade-grown difference today.

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