What is agroforestry and why does the future of coffee farming depend on it?

Agroforestry is a way of growing coffee alongside other trees and plants, either by planting coffee in established forests or purposefully planting other cash crops to grow alongside. There are many advantages to growing coffee in this way, and there is enough evidence to suggest that this can be a great tool to combat climate change in coffee growing countries, as well as maximising profits for producers.


What are the environmental benefits of agroforestry?

Taller, mature trees provide shade and protection for the young coffee trees when they are at their most vulnerable. This is absolutely vital with the rise of extreme weather events that coffee growing countries are seeing more and more frequently. It takes four to five years for a coffee tree to mature and start producing fruit, so it can be catastrophic for producers to lose any of their trees to adverse weather or disease. 


Coffee can be a challenge to grow even under prime conditions; they require a really specific and temperate environment to flower and fruit. A protective forest canopy keeps the immediate climate more stable by providing natural cover that acts as an insulating blanket to protect against extreme hot or cold spells. Established trees with deep roots keep the soil hydrated, which helps combat droughts but it also prevents soil erosion that can be a result of heavy rain. 


Shade is more appealing to bees and other pollinating insects, increasing the amount of flowers that get fertilised and thus providing a better yield of cherries for the farmer. The trees also provide a safe habitat for birds, who in turn keep control of pests that can plague coffee trees, such as the coffee borer beetle which burrow into the coffee cherries and decimate entire trees. Another huge issue blighting coffee production is the spread of ‘coffee leaf rust’ - a fungal disease that infects the plant and causes the leaves to drop prematurely, resulting in poor flowering and little to no fruiting. It was previously thought that growing coffee as a monoculture (grown with no shade) helped prevent the spread of the fungus due to reduced moisture, but studies show that coffees grown using agroforestry models have reduced cases of coffee rust of up to 20%. 

 

But doesn’t it cost more?

These many advantages don’t just aid the environmental side of things: there are so many economic benefits too. Producers are having to pay so much more to produce coffee, one of the biggest costs being fertilisers. This hike in price can be attributed to many global factors and have left producers with a tough decision to make; either pay for the eye-watering price increases or look for cheaper alternatives. This is where agroforestry comes in. Natural leaf-shedding of nearby trees (and some carefully considered pruning) help fertilise the soil by releasing nitrogen during the process of decomposition. Along with creating compost from the husks of the coffee cherries and some nutrient dense animal manure, this way of chemical-free fertilisation can have great results for coffee production and save the producer a lot of money in the long run. 


Planting other cash crops can be another great way of adding biodiversity to the farm. As well as helping bring flora and fauna back to the land, it provides producers with alternative income sources. Unpredictable weather patterns can wipe out the entire coffee harvest of even the most prepared grower, so having other crops to sell provides more financial stability.


Speciality coffee is priced by the quality of the cup, which determines how much more the producer receives above the minimum market price. Growing under shade means the cherries grow and ripen more slowly than grown under full sun. This actually enhances the flavour of the coffee as it allows the natural sugars to develop further and provides us with a more flavourful, complex cup. Better coffee means better prices for the producer, and more tasty coffee for us to enjoy.


How is Yallah supporting farmers who are using this model?

2024’s house coffee from Brazil is an exciting step towards expanding agroforestry coffees across our core ranges. This coffee is from a young producer called Eduardo Ferreira de Souza who is passionate about the agroforestry model he has pioneered on his family run farm. He has high ambitions; a thirty year plan to plant various crops that can be harvested at different maturities and that work in harmony together. Historically, Brazil has very little shade grown coffee but producers like Eduardo are a great example of showing us that change can be applied on a larger scale. We hope that he can inspire his fellow producers to make positive changes in their growing practices, and we are honoured to feature his coffee in our house range. 

Our buying standards framework highlights agroforestry as a major consideration and we hope to see more and more growers, exporters and roasters prioritising this system of farming for the future of all coffee drinkers. You can read more about our buying standards here. 

January 17, 2024