Why We Should All Be Drinking Shade Grown Coffee


Mmmmmmmm!   Coffee!   Here in North America, we are addicted to it- consuming over 300 million cups of its deliciousness every day.  That is big business.   It also means that our coffee drinking choices can have a big impact.

Let me introduce you to shade grown coffee.  My hope is that you will become very good friends.


Migrating yellow rumped warbler

Shade grown coffee is grown in the shade of other trees.  This traditional coffee-growing method depends on the shade of the forest canopy, which supports local wildlife, our migratory birds, and produces beans of better quality for premium, delicious coffee.

In the 1970s the introduction of a new hybrid coffee plant requiring full-sun exposure led many farmers to cut down their forests and abandon their traditional ways.  An environmental nightmare ensued.  This sun-grown coffee makes larger beans, and therefore produces twice the yield of shade grown coffee.   It uses the robusta bean, and has a more bitter taste.   It is a cheaper coffee, and what you would find in cans in the grocery store, and in instant coffee.    Sun-grown coffee requires enormous amounts of fertilizer to grow its big beans because there is no leaf litter from large trees above the coffee plants to nourish the soil, and because it lacks the benefit of nitrogen fixing which tree roots provide.


Bay Breasted Warbler

A great majority of our coffee comes from Central and South America, where vast tracts of forest have been cleared for agriculture such as the production of cheap sun-grown coffee, leaving migrating songbirds at a loss for winter habitat.

Devastatingly, the overall population of migratory birds has declined by 40% in the last few decades.   A part of this decline can be attributed to the loss of wintering habitat for the birds.


Where am I supposed to go?

Birds are hard-wired to fly south to a certain specific geographical region each year.    If they arrive there to find their forest has been cleared, it is not simple a matter of them flying somewhere else to find a suitable place to spend the winter.   This means that every time a forest is cleared, there is an immediate impact on that year’s migratory visitors. Though scattered tracts of forest on coffee plantations cannot replace virgin rainforest, they are certainly better than deforestation and monoculture. They give the birds a chance to find a winter territory where they can live, and fuel up for their spring journey north to their breeding grounds.


Black Throated Green Warbler

Plantations that grow coffee under the shade of other trees can help migratory birds, but they have many other benefits as well.   Farmers can harvest fruit, nuts, and wood from the other trees in the coffee plantation.  The trees also prevent soil erosion, and fix nutrients in the soil so that vast amounts of fertilizer that pollute the soil do not need to be used like in sun-grown coffee plantations.   As well, native birds, mammals and insects thrive in the biologically diverse mini forest that these shade grown coffee plantations provide.


Lots to eat here!

The benefit to us is that shade grown coffee tastes so delicious!   Sure, sun-grown coffee is cheap, but it doesn’t taste nearly as good.   For those of us for whom coffee is an essential part of the morning routine, we might as well make it good.   Really good.    And by doing so, we can know we are helping migratory birds, as well as the people, the animals, and the environment in Latin America.   The higher the demand for shade grown coffee, the more shade grown coffee plantations will be started.   It is as simple as that.


Young Rose Breasted Grosbeak

I am often so overwhelmed by all the environmental havoc that people are spreading on this earth, and wonder if there is anything I can do to stop the madness.    I am so happy to know that I can make a difference every day just by the coffee I choose to buy.    It’s not hard to find – some brands like Kicking Horse are available in grocery stores in the premium coffee section.   We had been buying it because it tastes so good, and were relieved to find out that it is shade grown as well.     There are also many sources of shade grown coffee available online.   Below I have made a list to get you started.

Coffee drinkers can be a powerful force for saving biodiversity in tropical countries, and improving the wintering grounds of our migratory birds.


Knowledge is Power

Yes, knowledge is power.  So, here are some sources of shade grown coffee, as well as links where you can find more information.

Prince Edward Point Bird Observatory Shade Grown Nicaraguan Coffee 

Kicking Horse Coffee (in supermarkets)

Birds and Beans

Timothy’s World Coffee

Starbucks: Organic Yukon Blend® and Organic Shade Grown Mexico

It was hard to find any conclusive data on Tim Hortons coffee.   They are working with farmers in Columbia and Brazil, two of the leading producers of “Sun coffee” but they are also working with farmers in other countries.   They do not claim to be sourcing shade grown beans, but do seem to be educating farmers in more environmentally sustainable growing practices.  Jury’s out…


Read more:

The Rainforest Alliance

Silence of the Songbirds by Virginia Stutchbury


You can make a difference!

Please share this post!

Just as I was writing this blog tonight, two fellow nature photographers commented to me that they hadn’t seen any warblers around this fall.  That just made me even more determined to share what I have learned.

Let’s start a conversation and make a difference.

Thank you!   Leslie


  1. Powerful message Leslie. I’m a coffee drinker and all I have to do is buy shade grown coffee to help birds, coffee growers and ultimately my planet. Thank you for the list and the links. As always your photos are awesome.

  2. Amazing blog Leslie,
    Thank-You so much for putting this information out there. I had no idea, but will start to look for shade grown coffee.

  3. Thank you for this info. I will pass it on along with your awesome photographs.

  4. Great article. Do you have any idea why Shade Grown Coffee lost it’s organic Certification?

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