July 26, 2016

Shade Grown Coffee: The Movie Asking About Sustainability


As a filmmaker, I’m always looking for a good story to tell. Yet shade grown coffee is more than just a good story. It’s also a way to make a profound environmental and economic impact.

And that’s why my Producer and I have spent several months filming on coffee farms in Central America, working to bring that story to you. Today, I’d like to give you a preview of it.

SEE ALSO: Shade-Grown Coffee 101: A VIDEO Introduction

turqoise-shade-coffee (1)

Never underestimate the power of a cup of coffee to effect change. Credit: Alexander Kinnunen

What Is Shade Grown Coffee?

Shade grown coffee is coffee grown under the shade of other trees. This can range from the farmer planting shade trees on their farm to them planting coffee trees in the existing forests – just like how wild coffee grows.

The shade trees provide a host of advantages, ranging from the environmental to the economic. They offer the coffee plants much needed shade from the scorching sun. This helps keep the temperature low and stable, while the trees’ fallen leaves also keep humidity in the ground. When coffee is grown under shade, it generally ripens slower, giving the cherries more time to mature and fully develop their complex flavours.

Many popular shade trees also fix nitrogen in the soil. If a coffee farm doesn’t have these nitrogen-fixing shade trees, the farmer will need to add it (often chemically) to the soil. And the trees can also decrease soil erosion from downpours.

Another benefit is economic. If the coffee farmer plants fruit-growing shade trees, they can maximize their income and diversify their diet – all while using almost zero extra land. Papayas, mangos, bananas, oranges, and avocadoes can all grow well on coffee farms.

Chiapas, Mexico: thousands of coffee trees

Chiapas, Mexico: thousands of coffee trees are thriving in the shade beneath the canopy. Credit: A. Kinnunen

Shade Grown Coffee Increasing Biodiversity

In 2014, the WWF found that 52% of the world’s biodiversity has disappeared. Fortunately, many coffee-growing regions have great biodiversity, and shade grown coffee has the power to help reverse, or at least slow down, that trend.

Farms producing shade grown coffee have the potential to mimic forests, meaning that they can provide welcome refuge for wildlife whose habitat is otherwise shrinking. A 2013 study reported in the journal Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment found that Costa Rican shade-coffee farms rivaled nearby forest habitats when it came to the presence of mammals. In Central America, while it’s rare to see big mammals such as jaguars and tapirs on the farm, smaller ones like monkeys and rabbits are a relatively common sight.

Then there are the insects: a survey in Southern Mexico found that just one shade tree (a beautiful Erythrina tree) contained hundreds of species of beetles, ants, and bees. The farm in question was also home to more than 20 species of butterflies as well as 10 different species of frogs, 6 species of bats and 24 species of mammals.

Can Shade Trees Protect Against Coffee Pests?

The shade trees also provide much needed habitat for lots of birds. And these birds are often so kind as to provide natural insect control, which holds real value for the farmer.

According to a 2013 study, in Costa Rica “these pest-control services prevented US$75–US$310 ha-year in damage, a benefit per plantation on par with the average annual income of a Costa Rican citizen.”

The coffee berry borer is a big problem on many coffee farms, and that same study found that shade trees reduced infestations of it by 50%.

However, if there are no birds, then it’s common for farmers to use pesticides to deal with the problem.

shade-grown trees in El Salvador

A coffee worker picks ripe cherries from shade grown trees in El Salvador. Credit: A. Kinnunen

Making a Movie About Shade Grown Coffee

My producer, Victoria Handskemager Wagner, and I figured that a good coffee movie should be like a good cup of coffee: a mix of science and art.

The art comes easily, because coffee is beautiful. The landscapes it grows in are magnificent. And there is an incredible amount of lovely, hard-working people out there, passionate about shade grown coffee.

As for the science, we are following the full process that coffee grows through – all the way from the soil and seedlings to the freshly brewed cup. The viewer will hear from a wide array of roasters, certifiers, café owners, non-profit organizations, and farmers as to how he or she can enjoy a more sustainable drink.

Apart from telling the story of shade grown coffee, the movie will also dive deeper into more specific topics – such as how to cup and taste coffee, if and how consumers can help make coffee production more sustainable, and what the future of coffee looks like. We will also look at whether certifications matter and, if so, which ones to look for.

roasted coffee

Shade Grown Coffee – The Movie explores the journey that coffee takes to your cup. Credit: V. Handskemager Wagner

Empowering the Viewer

We want to form a coherent story about coffee, told by the people who live by it every single day. But we also want to make it positive. Social or conscious documentaries can make us feel frustrated and powerless. We’d prefer to empower people.

After having watched Shade Grown Coffee – The Movie, we want the viewer to feel like they can really make a positive difference – and learn that it doesn’t have to be difficult, or expensive.

We also hope that our audience will get a deeper understanding of how much work actually goes into producing quality coffee, and perhaps appreciate their next cup even more.


Ripe Bourbons on the branch, protected from the sun by shade trees. Credit: V. Handskemager Wagner

Shade grown coffee has the potential to make coffee truly sustainable – both for nature and for the farmer. Yet many consumers don’t know about it.

We have a choice when we purchase coffee. And as production closely follows demand, this choice can have a great impact on farming methods worldwide.

If we can not only tell a great story, but also encourage consumers to ask how their coffee is grown, and prompt them to base their purchases on that, then this movie can have a real impact on the world.

A. Kinnunen filming on a shade-grown coffee farm in Central AmericaA. Kinnunen filming on a shade grown coffee farm in Central America. Credit: V. Handskemager Wagner

Feature photo credit: A. Kinnunen.

Perfect Daily Grind