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Balancing Coffee Production: The Shade-Grown Farmer's Dilemma

Updated: Apr 24


In our philosophical series on the demystification of coffee agriculture, today we’re going to explore shade-grown coffee and the challenges it entails. Beyond the acknowledged reduction in yield, my pursuit of the drawbacks to planting coffee under shade unveiled a trove of studies dating back to the 1980s all pointing to the virtues of cultivating coffee along a diversity of trees.


In the grand scheme of agriculture, especially in coffee-producing countries like ours, the focus is on strategies that support the economic well-being of producers while safeguarding forests, water, and soil conservation. With this holistic approach in mind, shade-grown coffee emerges as a strategic solution.


Dota Coffee Company Landscape
Coffee Landscape

Historically, coffee in Central America found its place alongside other trees, mirroring its natural habitat in Ethiopia where it thrived in the forest's understory. The resilience of plants in this ecological stratum to low light conditions naturally lent itself to shaded coffee cultivation.


The infusion of biodiversity into our agroecosystems bears manifold benefits, enriching the nuanced flavor profiles of coffee while nurturing the generation of organic matter and vital ecosystem services. Noteworthy studies abound on bird habitat conservation in shade-grown coffee plantations. But, as it is well known, coffee prices in general are low and coffee farmers struggle to make a decent living.


Despite the numerous documented benefits, many coffee farmers opt to reduce shade in pursuit of higher production and, consequently, economic growth. However, a long-term comparison reveals that production costs escalate due to reliance on external inputs. Thus, while it may seem like an avenue to further monetize coffee, in the long run, it proves to be an unworthy choice.


Simultaneously, conservationists strive to incentivize shade preservation through certifications that offer differentiated premiums to producers. Nonetheless, the allure of conserving biodiversity often pales in comparison to the potential production gains of sun-exposed plantations.


Coffee and Maize
Small coffee and maize

This paradox encapsulates the multifaceted dilemmas confronting entrepreneurs, farmers, and society at large. How do we prioritize ecosystem services, biodiversity, and quality over quantity? The answer eludes simplicity, for true sustainability needs the symbiosis of economic viability and environmental stewardship.


As producers, we must be creative. This is why Dota Coffee Company was born, as a way for us, the producers, to generate more income and be able to maintain environmentally friendly production systems, prioritizing quality over quantity. In this way, we are not solely dependent on international buyers, but through taking on more responsibility in the production chain, we can have the freedom to determine how we produce while also creating an economically resilient business.


Ultimately, the crux of the matter transcends mere monetary gains. It is about reshaping the distribution of wealth along the production chain. Perhaps, if farmers were the direct beneficiaries of increased income the drive for environmentally friendly practices would be heightened. It's a paradigm where ecological harmony, reverence for natural cycles, and economic prosperity converge, sans undue strain.

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