Café bajo sombra casi no existe en Brasil, pero en esta granja es un nuevo experimento.
The most impressive and progressive project at Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza is their shade grown coffee. You have probably heard of shade grown coffee, the term has become synonymous with bird friendly coffee, but here in Brazil it is unheard of. FAF is probably one of very few coffee farms in all of Brazil that purposefully plants coffee in a forest. Of course, when I say forest I don’t mean a dense jungle, coffee plants definitely still need plenty of sunlight to grow and for their cherries to ripen, but some shade actually provides many benefits.
In Brazil, you mostly see conventional, sun-grown coffee: rows and rows of deep green bushes growing on bare dirt or dead grass. This coffee is boosted with fertilizer, protected with pesticides and sprayed with herbicides to make it easier to harvest around. It is harvested by machine: either a hand held device that looks like a motorized rake is pushed up in to the bush, or a large tractor drives over the entire plant. This style of production is incredibly energy intensive, contaminating, and damaging, but it sure does yield vast amounts of coffee, which is clearly the only thing the growers are after.
Now-a-days some sun grown coffee is becoming organic. The shift is quite difficult; farms lose lots of money when they do this, but they can then charge a premium for their product, instead of selling conventional. Organic coffee usually has green grasses and plants growing all around it. There are always lots of spiders, ants, wasps and other insects living in the fields. I also saw some folks growing corn, cassava, avocados, papayas and bananas in between their rows of coffee bushes, to help sustain their families.
However, of all the coffee farms I’ve seen, the coffee with the most wildlife is by far the shade grown coffee at FAF. First of all, the place is gorgeous. You are surrounded by greenery, sun streams through cracks in the canopy, birds call and sing amongst each other constantly, butterflies, spiders and ants creep and flutter past you. I even saw a monkey swing silently through the vines of the taller canopy trees. This was the first coffee I got to pick, and it was by far the most enjoyable.
João, nuestro jefe, cosechando café bajo sombra. Es muy lindo poder cosechar café fuera del sol fuerte del día.
Shade-grown coffee is actually an official certification. There are several characteristics that are measured in order to achieve the certification.
- There must be trees of different heights
- There must be a diversity of tree species
- There must be enough mulching on the ground from fallen organic matter
- The optimum shade cover is 40%
- It is also important to protect waterways
Observing all of these guidelines is difficult and the certification process is complicated, so instead, Marcos and Sylvia call their coffee “nature friendly,” which I think suits it perfectly well.
Encontré un nido en una planta de café! Café bajo sombra sirve como un refugio para animales silvestres, especialmente pájaros.
While shade-grown coffee does not yield as much as conventional coffee, it has many benefits:
- The area becomes a wildlife refuge, which is immensely important in this part of Brazil where there are so many endangered species due to the disappearance of Mata Atlantica forests.
- The coffee ripens more slowly on the bush, meaning the sugars have time to absorb into the bean, supposedly increasing flavor.
- Shade coffee is resilient to climate conditions. The soil retains much more moisture and the temperature is more consistent. A couple years ago when many coffee plantations were devastated by drought, the shade-grown coffee plants at FAF remained unharmed and were the highest producers.
- Requires very little upkeep
The shade-grown coffee at FAF was actually an accident! Marcos and Sylvia were trying to reforest this part of the farm, so they just left it untouched. Then one day as they were taking a hike through the forest they noticed that many small coffee plants were growing all on their own. They were the great grandchildren of the coffee that used to cover the entire farm, and they were growing strong and healthy without any pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. The forest balances out all of their needs: the shade prevents weeds from growing, there are good pests to fight the problematic ones, and the soil is the richest and healthiest on the entire farm from all the organic matter that falls and decomposes on it.
So Marcos and Sylvia are now planting more coffee in the forest. Every now and then they may cut down a tree to provide the plants a little bit more sun light, but apart from that the only time they need to work there is during the harvest. Marcos calls it his “passive organic” coffee, as opposed to his “active organic” sun-grown coffee that requires much more upkeep.
Also, the fact that the coffee is hand-picked increases its quality. In Brazil labor has become very expensive, so few plantations hand-pick their cherries. When we harvested coffee we selected the most flavorful beans, those that were past ripe and looked like raisins. I can’t say what this year’s batch is going to taste like, but Marcos’s son, the international coffee cupper, gave last year’s crop a very high score.
It was hard to capture the beauty of the shade grown coffee, but I made a quick video for you all to see a little of what it’s like: