Organic coffee production, shade coffee, quality coffee

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Organic coffee can be considered to be passive or active. Passive organic coffee production systems are systems that do not apply any form of chemical input. Active organic coffee production systems also do not apply chemical inputs but in addition they comply with a range of other criteria needed for organic certification. Organic certification is a necessary step if the coffee is to be exported and labeled as organic in consumer countries.

Criteria that have to be met, may include:

  • The use of only organic seeds for planting and renovation
  • Shade regulation
  • Two to three mechanical clearings (never clean weeding) per year
  • Wind breaks
  • Terraces and live or dead barriers for soil conservation
  • Stumping
  • Mechanical and biological control of pests and diseases
  • Preparation and application of organic compost
  • Correction op pH levels of the soil
  • Use of preferred species
  • Leaf litter for ground cover
  • Recycling of organic material
  • Demand of firewood must not lead to deforestation
  • The used water in the wet processing system must be put on the coffee plot and not into the river system
  • In the dry processing system, all machinery must be carefully cleaned after a conventional coffee line before organic coffee may be processed or a dedicated organic machinery line must be set up
  • There must be a clear custody chain that identifies and separates the coffee as organic as opposed to conventional from the producer to the consumer.

(IFOAM, 1996).

Shade conditions are not required in organic coffee standards but they are highly recommended. Shade and organic farming are complementary. In a shade production system, there is less need for chemical inputs and, depending on the species, shade trees can fulfill a number of important roles that facilitate organic production like nitrogen fixation and maintenance of ground cover by leaf litter among others. The Organic Crop Improvement Association International (OCIA) currently encouraged its coffee-producing members to diversify the shade cover. By doing so growers can benefit from a variety of products associated with their holdings.

Shade trees

The legume Erythrina poeppigiana is frequently used as a shade tree in Costa Rica. The pruning remains provide organic material to the soil and favours nutrient recycling. However, practices are time consuming and the product of this legume species has little or no commercial value.

Lately, replacement of legumes has taken place with fast growing timber trees. Advantages:

  • Reduction of management costs (eg. labour needs for pruning);
  • Diversification of income;
  • Partially off set of the fluctuating price of coffee.

In Costa Rica government gives incentives to plant timber species in coffee fields such as Cedrela odorata, Cordia alliodoa, Terminalia spp. or Eucalyptus spp. The IUFRO Symposium on multistrata agrosystems with perennial crops (CATIE, 1999) concluded from several studies that agroforesty systems were more sustainable, more respectful of the environment and often more profitable than those based on intensive monoculture.

Traditional shade coffee systems typically rely on much lower chemical inputs than industrial plantations (Rice & Ward, 1996). This is because planting coffee among natural vegetation, or among trees planted for shade, fruit or timber, can reduce susceptibility to pests. Besides, many traditional methods have been passed down to today's farmers by previous generations before synthetic pesticides and fertilizers were widely used in agriculture.

Elimination of shade cover can cause significant impacts on various soil quality parameters. Significant higher erosion rates occurred on renovated coffee plantations in Nicaragua where shade had been reduced (Rice & Ward, 1996). The same plantations had a lower level of soil moisture and organic material than found in shade coffee systems.

Shade coffee systems appear to be more conservative recyclers of nitrogen than unshaded plantations. Within these high-rainfall areas, unshaded coffee loses nearly three times more soil nitrogen than shade plantations.

Quality coffee

There is a growing demand for quality coffee, comprised of all so-called 'gourmet' or 'specialty' coffees such as organic, fair trade and shade grown coffees and coffees with known origins. There is more and more evidence that coffees grown under shade trees are of better quality due to lower fruit load per tree and a longer period of bean maturation.

Central American countries have had a reputation for producing coffee of good quality, partly due to favourable environmental conditions but also due to sound agricultural practices such as coffee cultivation under shade trees.


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