Shade trees have numerous benefits: they’re associated with better cup profiles as they allow the coffee to ripen slower, they may provide additional income through the sale of their wood or fruit, they benefit the environment, and they can fix nitrogen and other needed nutrients.
But not all shade trees are the same.
I’m going to look at three types of shade systems that are used around the world: agroforestry, intercropping, and leguminous. Whether you’re choosing the best system for your farm or just want to know more about coffee, this article will sum up the pros and cons of each system and even provide information on establishing them.
Spanish Version: Cómo Elegir el Mejor Sistema de Sombra para tu Finca de Café
Shade-grown coffee at Finca Dos Jefes, Panama. Credit: Shade Grown Coffee The Movie
Our first one is useful not only because it provides shade but also because it provides producers with an additional income in the long-term future. Agroforestry shading is achieved with deep-root trees that will have value when the wood is sold. Even without harvesting, these trees – which are often native to the region – improve the value of the land and could be leveraged to get a loan if needed.
However, since the main purpose is to maintain the coffee farming, the trees should be spaced out (I typically opt for 20m between each tree). This will provide a shade to sun ratio of 2:3, which I find to be ideal for coffee growing.
This type of system is has a lot of benefits. It’s a long-term investment. It maintains the soil structure, provides habitats for birds and other animals, increases carbon sequestration. The trees do not compete with the coffee for nutrients. What’s more, it’s also a low-maintenance system that doesn’t require additional input.
Native trees at Damarli Estate provide agroforestry shade. Credit: K. Pech
Intercropping also provides both shade for coffee and additional income – but in this case it’s regular revenue throughout the year. Farmers choose trees that will provide fruit and nuts they can sell, such as avocado, orange, mandarin, and macadamia nut trees.
The tree should be chosen based on the farm environment and local market prices. Ideally they should have a moderately high canopy in order to provide a light shade that’s not too intense. I find that these trees work best when planted 5 to 10m apart, but it varies depending on the tree.
This type of system has several positive points. It provides additional revenue for the farmer, which can help alleviate cash flow problems. Environmentally speaking, it attracts a lot of biodiversity and also maintains soil structure, helping in the fight against erosion.
However, some caution should be taken because fruit trees can compete with the coffee for water and nutrients. This can then lead to a decrease in the coffee quality.
Orange harvest from Damarli Estate. Credit: K. Pech
Leguminous shade trees are used, not to provide an additional income, but to add nutrients to the soil – particularly nitrogen. It’s common in many farms in Central America, and can provide real savings in fertilizer (not to mention opening the door to organic certification).
These trees tend tend to be fast growing, which makes them great when planting areas that currently do not have shade. I find that spacing them about 10-15m apart works best, although again it varies depending on the tree type. Farmers will benefit from consulting with local agronomists to see which leguminous trees would be best for their specific farm’s needs.
Producers should be aware that leguminous shade trees tend to need annual maintenance, particularly pruning. In addition, they can compete with coffee for other nutrients and water. And unfortunately the wood is soft and therefore not marketable.
A leguminous shade tree at Damarli Estate. Credit: K. Pech
SEE ALSO: Shade-Grown Coffee 101: A VIDEO Introduction
The power of a good shade tree system should not be overlooked. It can Improve coffee quality, benefit the environment, and even offer an additional income.
The best system will depend on the farm and the producer’s personal wants and resources. Many producers choose to combine all three of these systems in order to provide the best shade for each lot, while also reaping the financial and environmental benefits. But whatever shade you choose, just make sure you understand how best to grow, maintain, and take advantage of it.
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