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home : columns : columns December 15, 2017

9/26/2017 1:27:00 PM
Coffee beans and birds
Like it or not, both the Nashville warbler and yellow warbler can be impacted by growing coffee. photo by Kris Kristovich
+ click to enlarge
Like it or not, both the Nashville warbler and yellow warbler can be impacted by growing coffee. photo by Kris Kristovich

photo Douglas Beall
+ click to enlarge
photo Douglas Beall

Not being a coffee-drinker (anymore), and not being in the bird-researcher loop as many of my friends are (including Doug Beall), the business of songbird conservation and coffee-growing methods went right over my head - until Doug grabbed my attention in Bi-Mart the other day. (Many Nugget readers will know Beall's name as it is attached to the splendid photos that appear in the column Sisters Country Birds.)

It seems an age-old problem has popped up again: the lack of understanding between land-owners and their efforts to make an income off their holdings and still provide the welfare of wildlife using the said land to live on.

For me, the greatest collision of land ownership and the welfare of nature is the destruction of the rainforest to create a business to ostensibly help people improve their lives in what was once a jungle. The destruction of the Amazon Rainforest by Brazil that began in 1941 to achieve that goal has, in my opinion, had a major negative impact on the world's climate. Seems some coffee-growers are doing the same thing to North American birds who spend their winter in South America.

It comes down to this: Coffee farms can provide good habitat for birds - including wintering migrants from North America as well as birds that live year-round in the tropics. Or they can destroy or damage bird habitat. It's largely a matter of how the coffee is grown.

Bird conservation groups are now reminding us: Many of the colorful songbirds that we enjoy in the United States - including warblers, tanagers, orioles, and grosbeaks - migrate south to the tropics and winter in Mexico and Central and South America for five months. Some of the world's top coffee-producing countries are located there; therefore, coffee farms are a major land use in an important region for wintering bird habitat. By buying sustainable (and particularly "Bird Friendly" labeled) coffees, you can help provide economic support for important bird habitat.

People have been drinking coffee in the USA since long before there was a USA. According to history and the coffee industry, the Dutch introduced coffee to the New World in the 1700s. In those far-gone days it was a forest-floor crop grown under a dense overhead forest canopy. The growers were happy with the profit base and the birds were happy with the way the farmers were doing business

However, things are not that way today; machines and chemicals are now being used to grow coffee out in bright sunlight, which is said to be generating a greater profit. And in today's world, profit drives everything.

Some coffee farms in operation today still use the traditional, rustic method of growing coffee in the shade, where artificial fertilizers aren't necessary. Decaying leaf litter recycles nutrients to feed the coffee plants. Pesticides aren't needed either, because more birds are around to eat insect pests, and the volume of coffee grown, and the subsequent profit satisfies the investors and farmers.

From various scientific reports, many tasters have said rustic - shade-grown - coffee yields a higher quality brew that tastes richer. This is partly because forest coffee isn't machine harvested, but picked by hand, allowing trained pickers to choose only the ripe coffee berries/beans. But it's also more expensive to raise and harvest.

Modern coffee-growing has introduced sun-tolerant varieties of coffee that can be grown in the open and tend to have higher yields than shade-grown coffee. According to agricultural and environmental scientists, this technique is much harder on the environment, resulting in forests being cut down, with pesticides and fertilizers employed to stimulate higher yields - and higher profits.

In some places, sun-grown coffee has dominated the landscape. For example, in Colombia, about 70 percent of coffee croplands have been converted to sun-grown operations, which is sad news for birds, especially the migrators.

According to the Cornell Laboratory for Avian Conservation, coffee farms can provide either good or bad habitat for birds, which include wintering migrants from North America as well as birds that live year-round in the tropics.

The coffee business has now reached the same level as non-organic and organic vegetable growing. It is now being said organically grown (mostly shade-grown) coffee not only tastes better and is better for you, but it helps save the lives of thousands of birds from North America spending winter in and around coffee plantations.

Now the ball is in your corner. If you, as coffee-drinkers, still enjoy the old Dutch plantation method of growing organic coffee in a shade-tree environment, tastes better and is bird-friendly - and - said coffee growers are happy with their profit doing so, all's well that ends well.

The next step is to recognize bird-friendly coffee-growing and processing operations. "Shade-grown" labels often appear on coffee packages, but these words are not regulated and they don't tell you much about the actual growing conditions at the farm. Unfortunately, unless the packaging is accompanied by a third-party certification stamp, such as the Smithsonian's "Bird Friendly" on the package, "shade-grown" is often just a marketing buzzword.

Some farms grow shade coffee among sparse, heavily pruned trees or even under banana crops. Unfortunately, these farms often lack diverse forest structure, offer little habitat for songbirds, and require fertilizers and pesticides to keep coffee growing.

Coffee-growers looking beyond the profit incentive are now organized, and, if you look at the label, these symbols can and will tell you what's what, and who's who.

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