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The true cost of coffee


Extracting a bird from a mist-net is an activity I have performed thousands of times. My job as supervisor of avian research at the Rouge River Bird Observatory of the University of Michigan-Dearborn calls on me to capture and band Swainson’s Thrushes, White-throated Sparrows, Nashville Warblers, and other migrants as they stop to rest and refuel in the leafy woods adjacent to the university’s Environmental Interpretive Center, outside Detroit. This morning was different. It was winter, and I was monitoring mist-nets strung miles to the south of Michigan, at the far end of many songbirds’ long migratory paths. Just a few days prior, I had battled frozen fingers removing familiar Dark-eyed Juncos, American Tree Sparrows, and Pine Siskins from nets. Today the mix of species was more representative of my Central American location. In addition to a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher and Worm-eating Warbler, I removed a tropical White-breasted Wood-Wren and Red-crowned Ant-Tanager. This article explores different types of coffee farming, the meaning behind various coffee certifications, the impact they have on the enivironment and the communities that operate coffee farms, in addition to the positive impact bird friendly coffee has for wildlife.

The impact coffee farming can have on deforestation

It was just after sunrise, but I was wide awake and alert after two cups of delicious coffee — coffee brewed from beans harvested from trees just yards from where I was standing. I was on Finca Esperanza Verde (Green Hope Farm), a 256-acre shade coffee farm located east of the city of Matagalpa in Nicaragua, taking part in a banding project initiated by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Here coffee grew under tall native trees festooned with vines, orchids, and bromeliads, or among bananas and oranges and shorter native vegetation. Chestnut-sided Warblers in their lime-green winter plumage foraged alongside gorgeous turquoise-hooded Elegant Euphonias, while Tennessee Warblers competed with black Crimson-collared Tanagers for fruit hung near the dining pavilion.

Coffee is a small tree that naturally grows under the canopy of other trees. Although it originated in Africa, it thrives in the tropics worldwide and is harvested on 25 million acres of land. Coffee cultivated in a traditional manner — that is, under shade — provides very good habitat for birds and other wildlife. In our hemisphere, the birdlife includes a wealth of resident birds like the wood-wren and ant-tanager that I found in my mist-net, as well as a large percentage of the songbirds that nest in North America.

“Our” migratory birds spend more time in the tropics in the winter than they do here in the breeding season. To survive long enough to migrate north and nest once again, they must find suitable living conditions during the winter months. Historically, shade coffee farms have provided a great deal of such habitat.


Unfortunately, society’s quest for cheaper coffee over the last several decades has caused tens of thousands of acres of this valuable land to be destroyed. New coffee types — known as “sun coffee” or “technified coffee” — have been developed that can be grown without the protection of shade, in higher densities, and with higher yield. In Latin America alone, roughly three million of the nearly seven million acres of shade coffee have been converted to sun cultivation.

The impact of the deforestation is much greater than the absolute levels of destruction would indicate. Sun coffee requires the application of large amounts of fertilizer and pesticides, and it depletes soils through erosion and the sapping of nutrients — all things that damage intricate tropical ecosystems.

Latin American coffee farms: Family-managed operations

During my travels in Latin America, I have visited and surveyed birds on coffee farms in Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, and Mexico. The vast majority are not large plantations but family-managed operations that average about a dozen acres in size. Again and again, I have been struck by the importance of shade coffee to birds and biodiversity — in some areas, shade coffee seemed like the only land use that preserved trees and natural habitat. Wherever I’ve gone, one thing was apparent: The abundance and diversity of birds and wildlife increased along with the abundance and diversity of shade trees on coffee farms.


During my three-day session at Finca Esperanza Verde, we banded about 70 birds of more than 30 species, a mix of residents and wintering migrants. Of the species that nest in North America, the most common were Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Wood Thrush, Worm-eating Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, and Ovenbird. Remarkably, we also encountered a number of individuals that had been recaptured on the farm multiple winters in a row. One Louisiana Waterthrush, for instance, had been banded at the Finca in 2006; it had to have made at least five round trips between the United States and Nicaragua!

We captured the birds right among the coffee trees, which were planted under a canopy of enormous native forest trees. In other sections of the farm, coffee grew among banana and fruit trees that weren’t much taller than the coffee itself. This mixed land use, with coffee ripening under varying levels of shade management, is typical of many small coffee farms, where a strict sun-or-shade dichotomy is the exception rather than the rule.

In North America, when we think of farms, we envision defined and orderly places. Tropical coffee farms, especially small family-owned ones, are messy in comparison. Coffee, various fruit or timber crops, native forest, pastureland, and family housing may all be interspersed. Some coffee might grow under native shade trees, another plot may be in a patch of sunlight, and still more trees may be among bananas and citrus — all on the same farm. This heterogeneity explains why no universally agreed-upon or legal definition of “shade-grown” coffee exists, although the term appears on many coffee labels.


Several government agencies and nonprofit organizations have formulated criteria to help define aspects of ecologically friendly and environmentally sustainable coffee production. Producers that meet the standards can have their coffee certified, and you and I can use the certifications to choose brands that don’t contribute to the destruction or degradation of bird habitat. (To learn about common certifications, see the box below.)

Three steps to take to drink coffee responsibly

Unfortunately, certified coffees make up a relatively small portion of the coffee sold in the world today. If you have trouble finding it in stores, keep in mind that certifications are voluntary and market-driven. If we buy more certified coffee (and pay more for it), supply will increase, and it will become easier to find. And even if you can’t find certified coffee right now, you can still drink responsibly.

Here are three steps to take when shopping for certified coffees:

  1. Consider the country of origin. Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Bolivia, India, and Ethiopia are more likely to grow coffee under shade, while Costa Rica, Brazil, and Colombia are more likely to grow sun coffee.
  2. Try to buy from a small company dedicated to coffee, rather than a large multinational corporation. Good roasters develop relationships with the farms and co-ops — it’s in everybody’s best interest for the coffee to be grown sustainably. Large corporations, on the other hand, are more interested in profit, which means high volume and low prices achieved through technified sun coffee.
  3. Cheap coffee is not sustainable, not for the farmer and not for the environment. I can’t state it any plainer than this: If you are buying inexpensive grocery-store or fast-food coffee, you are contributing to the destruction of bird habitat and the decline of migratory songbirds. It’s one of the worst things you can do for the environment on a daily basis — and one of the easiest things for you to change.

Think of it this way: If you drink two cups a day, you may go through about 20 pounds of coffee a year. Switching from inexpensive coffee (that is, beans costing $7 a pound or less) to certified coffee from a specialty roaster ($13 a pound) will cost you about $120 more per year. This added expense is less than the cost of four 50-pound bags of sunflower seeds.


Remember, coffee is not an essential food item. Despite our love, addiction, and habits, it is an option, a luxury. Personally, I cannot imagine indulging myself with a product that may have contributed to the harm of birds I love. I realize that this may be an abstract concept for you and most other coffee drinkers, but I’ve spent time on enough coffee farms to see exactly how this works.

I want to see a world filled with birds and tropical biodiversity. I want to support that, even with the small but powerful gesture of the coffee I choose to drink.

Bird Friendly Coffee and Coffee Certifications Explained

Many coffees are labeled “shade grown,” but no legal definition for this term exists, and it is open to wide interpretation. Here’s what you need to know about common coffee certifications.


Bird-Friendly Coffee
This is the only true “shade-grown” certification. Developed by ecologists at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, it has the most robust habitat requirements of any coffee certification, including rules on the height and density of the canopy cover and the number and types of shade-tree species. In addition, bird friendly coffee must also be certified organic. Only coffee certified by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center can be called Bird-Friendly. More info:

Organic Coffee
Coffee that is certified organic in the United States must be produced under standards established by the Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program, even if the coffee is grown in another country. Requirements include no use of prohibited substances, including most synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, on the land for at least three years. Verification is carried out by accredited certifying agencies. More info:

Rainforest Alliance
The Rainforest Alliance is a non-profit organization whose sustainable-agriculture program certifies many crops, including coffee.


Rainforest Alliance certification covers community relations, the fair treatment of workers, and other issues. Criteria for shade management are not required but are included among many optional standards related to habitat. The shade criteria are not as strict as Bird-Friendly standards, and organic certification is not required. However, for farms where lots of shade is not possible (such as at high elevations, where clouds provide shade) or those that cannot meet all organic requirements, Rainforest Alliance certification is very valuable.

Examine the seal carefully. The Rainforest Alliance allows use of its seal on packages when only 30 percent of the beans inside are certified; the proportion will be indicated if it is less than 100 percent. More info:

Fair Trade
Fair Trade is primarily concerned with alleviating poverty through greater equity in international trade. Fair Trade certification has no criteria related to growing coffee under shade, and standards regarding wildlife are generic. More info:


Visit a coffee farm!

The four Nicaraguan coffee farms below welcome visitors. Check the websites for details.

Finca Esperanza Verde

Near San Ramón, east of the city of Matagalpa. Coffee grows under the shade of an extensive tropical forest canopy on 28 acres. Lodging is available depending on accessibility. Check website for availability.

Reserva El Jaguar

Coffee farm, managed forest, and 70 acres of cloud forest north of the city of Jinotega. Coffee grown here is Rainforest Alliance-certified and carried exclusively by Allegro Coffee Roasters at Whole Foods Markets. Owners Georges and Lili Duriaux-Chavarría do extensive bird research; two banding stations are on site. Lodging is in cabins with private baths; rates include all meals. More informal accommodations are available for researchers.


Selva Negra/La Hammonia

North of Matagalpa. Lodging options include 19 bungalows, four large chalets, and a 12-room youth hostel. The coffee is Rainforest Alliance-certified, and portions of the farm are also certified organic and Bird-Friendly.

Gaia Estate

South of Managua, in Diriamba, Carazo. A 90-acre farm that has just started offering tours and lodging. Certified organic and Bird-Friendly, the coffee is available from Birds & Beans U.S., currently in the Chestnut-sided Warbler roast, and from Birds & Beans Canada under the farm name.


Why certified coffees cost more

Growing high-quality coffee under shade in an ecologically responsible way requires extra work, and obtaining certification can be expensive.

Complying with requirements might include paying for additional trees, water treatment, or soil testing; hiring laborers to perform manual weeding; and purchasing or producing and applying natural fertilizers. Then there is the cost of initial and periodic farm inspections by a third party. These can run into the thousands of dollars, although they are sometimes subsidized by local or outside organizations.

A typical small farmer may gross only $5,000 for a coffee crop in a good year. If he or she cannot earn a profit after covering the additional expenses, the additional expenses are not worth it.

Julie Craves is a contributing editor of BirdWatching magazine and the author of “Since You Asked,” our regular Q&A column about birds. You can read more about coffee and the environment in her acclaimed blog Coffee and Conservation.


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Originally Published
Julie Craves

Julie Craves

Julie Craves is an ecologist and the retired director of the Rouge River Bird Observatory in Dearborn, Michigan. She answers readers’ questions about birds in her column “Since You Asked” in every issue of BirdWatching. A tireless researcher and bird bander with a keen interest in the stopover ecology of migrant birds, she is also a personable writer with a gift for making everything she writes readable and entertaining. Her first article in Birder’s World (now BirdWatching), “Forest Fire-tail,” a profile of the American Redstart, appeared in June 1994. Send a question to Julie. Read her blog at

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