Bird-friendly coffee makes a difference

The expression, "You are what you eat," is one that invites thought.

Our food choices are important, and deserve a thoughtful approach — for our health as well as the health of others.

The topic here is coffee, what we drink, second only to oil in the import/export world.

Carl and I attended New Hampshire Audubon's annual meeting and a presentation by a fellow from Birds & Beans coffee, a company that sells only what's certified as "bird-friendly" coffee.

Traditional coffee farming is very bird-friendly. Coffee naturally is a shade-grown crop of the understory, with a mixed tree canopy above that often includes fruit and nut trees. Those farming practices support a species diversity of plants and animals that rivals diversity found in a natural, undisturbed rain forest — in other words, a lot more than birds.

High-tech agribusiness has taken over most coffee production. Small-scale, family based farms have been replaced as the forest is cut down or burned for large plantations, row after row of sunbaked coffee bushes aggressively pushed for maximum yield.

This industrial crop approach creates an unnatural single crop or “monoculture” that requires a lot of chemicals and irrigation to keep it going. Gone is the diverse tree canopy above and the leaf litter and rich, cool soils below — and all the birds and other wildlife that seek that lush world, especially as a dry-season refuge.

Fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation systems have replaced the natural nutrient recycling and insect control that a forest provides. Leaf litter decomposing is the best fertilizer, and a natural predator-prey relationship is the best way to keep insect “pests” in check.

Sun-grown coffee depletes the soil, no matter how much fertilizer is applied. Exposed soil also is prone to erosion. The forest will never grow again. Arid grasslands are more likely.

After hearing about bird-friendly coffee, Carl talked to Pete at Nature's Green Grocer in Peterborough who promptly researched the subject and ordered two coffees certified by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center as "bird-friendly."

The Smithsonian's certification process is rigorous, guaranteeing that the coffee was produced as an understory crop with a diversity of trees overhead and no manufactured fertilizers or pesticides applied below.

A visit to the coffee aisle in grocery stores finds a lot of labels. Fair Trade focuses on working conditions and wages; Rainforest Alliance focuses on working conditions plus some environmental; organic prohibits all synthetic chemicals and GMO seeds.

Shade-grown is a concept that's slower to gain awareness than the others, but the good news is that the ethical and environmental share of the coffee market is growing, slow and steady.

The Birds & Beans coffee outfit was started largely by birders and takes an active role in increasing certification of coffee growers and spreading the word about the importance of shade-grown practices. Most of its business is online mail order, but actual coffee can be purchased directly at the New Hampshire Audubon offices in Concord.

Organic, Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance coffees and other products are easy to find in large and small food stores; Smithsonian-certified coffee requires more of a search.

As mentioned above, Nature's Green Grocer carries two, a light roast Mexican blend and a medium roast Peruvian. Prime Roast in Keene carries a Peruvian regular and dark roast. All have the small green seal of birds in treetops above coffee beans pictured here with the Smithsonian "Bird Friendly" trademark.

I suspect that many stores, if requested, would carry certified bird-friendly coffee — perhaps it's as simple as Carl's conversation with Pete.

Yes, sun-grown coffee is cheaper in terms of dollars and cents, but as often is the case the true costs are enormous as forests are burned and cut, chemicals leach into waterways, and soils are depleted. Farming organically also is healthier for the farm workers than exposure to pesticides.

Certification brings higher prices for the coffee growers as inducement to maintain traditional shade-grown practices instead of switching to higher yield sun-grown coffee.

As for bird-friendly, the decline of Baltimore orioles, one species that has traditionally overwintered in shade-grown coffee farms, matches the decline in shade-grown farms over the last 15 years of conversion to sun-grown coffee.

No orioles sing from the treetops in sun-grown coffee plantations. There are no treetops. There are no orioles.

Backyard Birder by Francie Von Mertens appears every other week in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

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