Agroforestry - it’s another buzzword that is beginning to float throughout the specialty coffee sector, but in reality isn’t something all that new. When most of us think of a coffee farm, or any large-scale agricultural production, forests are not the first thing that comes to mind.
Fields upon fields, rows upon rows...this is how most of us envision farming anything really.
But think again. According to the USDA, Agroforestry is the intentional integration of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems to create environmental, economic, and social benefits. It has been practiced in the United States and around the world for centuries.
So for coffee farmers, agroforestry is all about capitalizing on, and intentionally integrating coffee plants into the unique and natural bio-diverse forest ecosystems to improve everything from crop yield to bean quality.
But what are the real benefits of this timeless farming style and why is it starting to come back into mainstream conversation? Our experiences with our coffee growers in Nepal at the Plantec Coffee Estate helped shed light on why agroforestry is important for not only growing great Himalayan coffee, but also for long-term sustainability of the coffee sector and its communities as a whole.
This is how coffee can combat climate change
Rising temperatures add a layer of insecurity to a coffee farmer's future. Where sun-grown coffee production was once common practice, hotter weather poses a direct threat to the health of any Arabica coffee plant.
Agroforestry allows coffee farmers to plant their trees under the protection of thick canopies and shady conditions where it can thrive. Our growers in Nepal cultivate their Arabica coffee cherries underneath a dense forest lining that helps keep temperatures consistent, soil nutrients and density rich, and reduces the overall need for fertilizers and other chemicals low.
Agroforestry is better for a coffee farms wallet too
Deforestation is a costly process and has influenced many farmers to engage in mono-cropping. This practice focuses on clearing out an entire farm for the production of one crop. For a long time this was common practice for increasing yields and short-term profits.
While great in theory, this often leaves coffee farmers and their incomes in a vulnerable state. One small thing such as coffee rust or a dry season and livelihoods can be destroyed.
Agroforestry in coffee production means that farmers in developing or rural economies do not have to decimate their land and rely on one cash crop. Coffee farmers that use agroforestry can easily diversify their income through growing fruits, vegetables, nuts, and other staples that have a steadier price in international markets.
Agroforestry transcends into the social fabric too
When coffee farmers invest in agroforestry, they are also often making a long-term investment in ongoing annual production of multiple crops. In turn, this generates a need for consistent employment that can improve incomes in communities where many have become so dependent on seasonal work.
We’ve seen this first hand as growers in Nepal have been able to more consistently employ staff year round - simultaneously closing the gender and income gaps that ripple throughout rural Nepal. Not only is agroforestry opening up more opportunities for farmers in Nepal, it is helping to strengthen communities and build economic and environmental resilience.
So what can you do as a conscious coffee consumer?
We get it, you’re busy and often times agroforestry isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when going for your caffeine fix. But there are a few clues that can help make it easy for you.
Be on the lookout for the one keyword that implies agroforestry was used - shade-grown. If buying specialty coffee is your thing, we suggest you start keeping an eye out for this clue to help move the needle in the right direction.
And finally, just knowing and being aware of agroforestry as a practice is empowering and can have small ripple effects - creating more conscious consumers that understand the immense amount of land and labor behind our favorite drink!