When you think about coffee farming, what comes to mind? Uniform rows of trees? Lush forests brimming with bright red coffee cherries? What about natural landscapes scattered with healthy, flourishing coffee trees? This is agroforestry.
Agroforestry is a pretty simple concept. The idea is to integrate old and new growth trees, along with shrubbery, into agriculture. It’s an ancient idea, in fact the first sparks of agriculture were integrated lots of several different types of plants, both edible and not. The is because plants and gardens are synergistic. By clear-cutting large areas of land in order to cultivate rows of the same crop, farmers remove the necessary elements to create a healthy harvest. Though mono-cropping (planting large amounts of one crop in a single area) produces high yields, it only lasts a few growing seasons. One crop with no integration of trees or other plants leads to stripped soil, making crops more susceptible to disease.
So how does this relate to coffee? Agroforestry is becoming more of a go-to growing option in the coffee industry for a few reasons. Natural integration of coffee into the local environment provides much of the shade needed to grow exemplary coffee without a lot of farming upkeep. By surrounding coffee trees with local shrubbery and old growth trees the nutrients that are being stripped and added to the soil are much more varied than if coffee was planted by itself. Since different plants need and produce different nutrients and minerals, the fertility of the soil is preserved when varied species are planted.
Another significant benefit of agroforestry is the reforestation that it naturally fosters. Farmers in coffee growing countries are becoming increasingly aware and proactive about the harms of clear cutting forest land and mono-cropping. In many of the mountainous coffee growing regions the negligence of these two factors have led to increased erosion in the growing areas. With the advent of (or really, reversion to) agroforestry, new root systems are helping cement the soil in a way that allows coffee trees to be planted at their ideal level. This helps maintain and even create new forests in deforested areas. Of course, preserving more forests also means that more carbon is being removed from the atmosphere, which is always a benefit.
Change can be difficult to implement in agriculture. Fortunately for both the farmer and the environment, agroforestry is actually less work. By having a natural landscape that cultivates the nutrients and shade coffee needs, the crop is able to thrive without intense attention from the farmers.
Lucky for coffee and avid coffee consumers there are people who value and strive to make coffee a more sustainable crop through agroforestry. One such organization is our friends in Ecuador, Cloud Forest Coffee Farms. They are an alliance of coffee farmers who are actively working to reforest clear cut land and integrate coffee crop. As more farms implement agroforestry practices it will hopefully spill into other areas of agriculture. As the climate changes, it is inevitable that farmers won’t be able to strictly rely on the methods used for the past several decades. Further incorporating agroforestry practices into agriculture as a whole is surely of the most beneficial steps that we can take to ensure a future of exemplary coffee.