The Arbor Day Foundation’s specialty coffee has great taste and great values. It is shade grown under rain forest canopies in Mexico and Peru, and great care is taken during every step of production.
“Our focus has been on sourcing with the highest quality possible,” he says. “We want to put together an amazing cup of coffee.”
Carlson, who works out of the Foundation’s Lincoln office, knows what he’s talking about. In January, he traveled to Costa Rica to explore possible new coffee sources and to get a closer look at how it’s done on the ground.
He spent his trip waking up before sunrise and taking long journeys every day to talk to farmers, staying in what he described as “some rustic, remote areas.”
Shade-grown coffee has a number of benefits. It requires fewer inputs like fertilizer and pesticides. And it prevents the clear-cutting of rain forests that is required for traditionally mass-produced, sun-grown coffee.
The care of harvest also produces a richer, more flavorful bean because it matures more slowly.
While some of the larger coffee producers pick the cherries that later become coffee beans before they have fully ripened and throw them in a large truck, shade-grown farmers only pick the cherries when they are ready to be picked.
“Back in the 70s, there was a big shift toward basically a more mechanized approach to production of coffee,” Carlson says. “What they figured out is if you level out all the trees and you start planting these coffee trees in a row and start using a lot of pesticides and fertilizers, you can actually get them to produce a lot more cherries. So there was this big push just to slash and burn.”
The result has been devastating to the environment, which Carlson saw firsthand.
“Costa Rica is a very beautiful country, but everywhere you look you can see the deforestation that has occurred. And you have the coffee shrubs in their place.”
People talked a lot about roads getting blocked off and farms being destroyed by landslides, but they didn’t make the connection that ripping out native trees was the cause. Coffee is technically a shrub, though its green color can be deceiving. Many think it’s going to hold the soil in place, but it is no substitute for the larger trees that coffee plants replace.
Shade grown coffee truly makes a difference – for saving rain forests, but also by greatly reducing the environmental degradation that follows from severe deforestation. That has a meaningful impact on quality of life.
Carlson says the economy of scale is not there yet for shade-grown coffee farms to work in much of Costa Rica and other South and Central America countries. That’s where the Foundation has a role to play increasing demand.
“Basically, what we need to do is create a larger marketplace, which I believe comes from educating the consumers that it does make a difference what coffee you drink,” he says. “And as we build the demand for those coffees, we can go to coffee growing regions and offer them an economic incentive to keep the rain forest intact.”