Early last spring, when Bill Wilson caught sight of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak on his birdfeeder in South Dartmouth, then a Baltimore Oriole on his neighbor’s fence, it felt like the Bird God was whispering in his ear, “Keep doing what you’re doing for us.”
A lifelong birder, he knew these songbirds had recently arrived from wintering grounds in Latin America, an arduous journey that required sustenance. Songbirds belong to a broader classification of 250 or so neotropical migratory species, many of which are in perilous decline largely because of habitat lost to agriculture and urban expansion.
He remembers thinking, “How cool, I’m feeding them here, and they’re feeding them there!”
Wilson manages Birds & Beans, a coffee company he cofounded in 2008, and by “there” he meant hundreds of small coffee farms in Peru, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Honduras that Birds & Beans get its coffee beans from. On these so-called “shade farms,” coffee plants are grown under the canopies of trees that create a biodiverse, healthy habitat for birds.
Saving birds, in fact, looms large for Birds & Beans. Its coffee, along with having USDA Organic and Fairtrade status, is also certified Bird Friendly. To achieve this gold standard, available from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, coffee producers must pass a stringent set of criteria. Bird friendly essentially refers to shade-grown coffee, and it stands in stark contrast to sun-grown coffee, which is cultivated in vast open fields that are created when forests are cut down. Often old forests.
Up until 1970, all of the coffee consumed in the world was shade-grown, until some planters switched to a variety of coffee that could be grown in sun, with larger yields and profits. Shade-grown lands, however, foster more sustainable growth; trees retain water, prevent erosion, store carbon, and support birds that eat insects. Sun-grown farms, less biodiverse, require pesticides and fertilizers and deplete the soil.
The Smithsonian’s Bird Friendly Coffee program presently certifies roughly 5,100 farmers in Latin America, according to Justine Bowe, the program’s manager. Some 40 coffee brands have its blessing, including some well-knowns like Pete’s Yosemite Dos Sierras and Allegro’s Early Bird from Whole Foods, as well as lesser-known bestsellers such as Redstart’s El Salvador Finca Hungria. Birds & Bean’s six varieties, each named after a bird — Baltimore Oriole French Roast Decaf, for instance — are roasted by Wicked Joe in Topsham, Maine.
Shade-grown coffee doesn’t only benefit birds. “It sustains tropical forests, family farmers, and their workers, villages, and whole districts,” noted Wilson, who said that brand loyalty for Birds & Beans is “very high.” “Our buyers are interested in trees, bird conservation, and environmental preservation.” And knowing that drinking coffee can boost the economies of rural communities is a big draw, too.
Sales of Birds & Beans have climbed during the pandemic, according to Wilson. (A 12-ounce bag of Wood Thrush Medium Roast costs $13.25.) Customers working at home are buying more coffee. Generally, there’s a clamor these days for many organic foods, as though the pandemic is putting a spotlight on food purity, nudging people toward foods free of pesticides and other chemicals.
“The last five years, we’ve had a two-time increase in both the number of producers and the volume of bird-friendly coffee produced,” Bowie said. Nevertheless, bird-friendly coffee accounts for “less than one percent of the coffee sold in the US.” Worldwide, shade farms represent less than 25 percent of all coffee land, and forests are still shrinking.
Complicating matters, “All bird-friendly coffee is shade-grown, but not all shade-grown coffee is bird friendly,” noted Bowe. Shade farms can lack enough trees and other species that perpetuate prime bird habitat. One requirement for the Smithsonian’s certification is that a farm must have at least 11 species of native trees that attract, at coffee-farming altitudes, specific insects that migratory and native birds dine on.
The Smithsonian’s Bird Friendly program was started in the late 1990s by Robert Rice, a geographer, and Russell Greenberg, an ornithologist, whose studies of coffee farms with and without shade trees provided insights into why bird populations were declining.
“It was clear from those studies that as the diversity of shade-tree species increased, so did the species of birds, both migratory and residents,” said Rice. A 2018 study that Rice coauthored estimated that more than 12 million acres of forest in Mexico and Central and South America had been converted to sun-grown coffee farms, affecting warblers, vireos, hummingbirds, thrushes, and many other species that make the long flight to breeding grounds in North America each spring.
Rice, himself a roaster, appreciates Birds & Beans’ policy of roasting to order and next-day shipping. “If the coffee has been roasted within a week of when you get it, the brew can be as exquisite as a fine wine.”
Ann Parson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.