Bird-friendly coffee has a rich, robust history

If you’re enjoying a cup of coffee while you read the morning newspaper, you’re in good company. Americans consume 400 million cups of coffee every day. That’s 146 billion cups per year. It gets us going in the morning and gets us through the day. We are the leading consumers of coffee, but coffee is second only to water as the most popular drink in the world.

History. Civilization’s love affair with coffee dates back more than 1,500 years. According to Ethiopian folklore, circa A.D. 500, a young goatherder named Kaldi tended his flock in the lush wooded highlands of eastern Africa.

When it came time to drive the goats home one day, they ignored his calls. He searched the wooded hillside frantically until he found his goats frolicking in sun dappled patches of forest. They were head butting each other and dancing wildly on their hind legs. He thought they had gone mad or been bewitched.

As Kaldi watched, he saw the goats eating the green leaves and red berries of an unfamiliar understory tree. It took the goats hours to calm down and finally follow Kaldi home. The next morning Kaldi escorted the herd back to the hills, and they ran directly to the area where the strange trees grew.

Immediately they began eating the leaves and red berries. The young goatherder tried some, too. The leaves were bitter, but soon his body tingled. Then he chewed a few of the red berries. Soon he was dancing with the goats, singing and feeling indefatigable.

Kaldi had discovered coffee and the joy of caffeine. It probably took a few hundred years to domesticate the tree and cultivate plantations, but by the 10th century coffee had been documented in print by an Arabian physician. The rest is history.

Second only to oil. Today, coffee is second only to oil as a global commodity. According to several coffee-themed web sites, humans drink 12,000 cups of Joe every second. This demand keeps 125 million coffee growers employed worldwide between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Most is grown in Central and South America.

In nature, coffee grows best as an understory tree. The best quality coffee, Arabica, grows only above an elevation of 2,000 feet. Robusta grows at lower elevations, but it has a more bitter flavor. Though coffee grows best as a shade tree, varieties have been cultivated to grow in full sun.

Harsher flavor. On these plantations canopy trees are cut down, and the crop grows faster thanks to the use of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. But because it grows faster, it has a harsher flavor.

The best coffee is shade grown coffee. It grows and matures slower under the shade of a tall canopy. And in that canopy lives an entire community of birds, insects, mammals, and plants.

Baltimore orioles, scarlet tanagers, and wood thrushes are just a few of our migratory birds that use bird-friendly coffee plantations on their winter grounds.

Bird-friendly coffee. A few weeks ago at a trade show, I met some folks from Golden Valley Farms Coffee Roasters (www.goldenvalleyfarms.com) in West Chester, Pa.

Golden Valley specializes in shade grown, bird-friendly coffee. CEO John Sacharok explained his commitment to roasting and distributing organic, shade-grown coffee.

“We get our beans from small family farms in Latin America and Ethiopia that have been certified as bird-friendly by the Smithsonian Institution’s Migratory Bird Center,” Sacharok said.

“Nature meant for coffee to be grown in the shade of taller trees,” Sacharok added. “Shade-grown coffee is rich and flavorful, growers receive fair and stable prices, and the canopy provides habitat for neotropical birds, orchids, and insects.”

Organic. According to the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, shade grown coffees are not only bird friendly, they are also organic. That means they are grown without chemical pesticides that poison the environment.

The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center uses years of scientific research and independent third party inspectors to certify coffee as “bird-friendly.” Farms that earn certification display a bird-friendly logo on their products. Look for it.

These coffees cost a bit more, a few pennies per cup, but it’s a small price to encourage small family coffee farmers to grow their crops in a way that benefits birds and the environment in general. For a list of retailers that sell certified, bird friendly coffee, visit http://nationalzoo.si.edu/scbi/migratorybirds/coffee.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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