A Different Cup of Coffee

More than 10 years ago, we set out to create a different kind of company – one that would give consumers a way to use their purchasing power to make the world better rather than worse. We wanted to provide a product that was green at its core – not something that just looked green or came out of a “green” facility with a super duper recycling program. We wanted to create a true “triple bottom line” company that produced tangible environmental and social benefits.

Releasing the roasted coffee.
Releasing the roasted coffee.

Coffee was the perfect product for our experiment – for one thing, we love really good coffee and had a hard time finding a consistent source. And, most importantly, traditionally cultivated coffee is grown in a way that preserves habitat for wildlife – including Migratory Songbirds. Coffee is increasingly being grown in partial shade or full sun, transforming what was once a thriving forest ecosystem into “Eco Deserts” capable of supporting little life: Where there was once a thriving forest ecosystem, the only living thing is the crop being cultivated.

A few years before we started Birds and Beans, The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center had developed the Bird Friendly Coffee Certification.  Its aim is to identify and certify farms that provided good habitat for migratory songbirds – or more accurately are functioning ecosystems.

So, having identified the problem and the solution, Birds and Beans was born. We bought a small Commercial Roaster, some green Bird Friendly coffee and started developing our roast profiles. After about a year of development, we were ready to launch.

We sold our first coffee at the Guelph Organic Show in January 2003. Now we are a Certified Organic Roaster and have 2 much larger roasters and a full line of Certified Organic, Certified Bird Friendly, Fair Trade and Direct Trade coffees. We offer the World’s first and only Triple Certified Espresso – Commit, an espresso blend.

A decade later, we can declare our experiment a success. Birds and Beans is a going concern where every pound of coffee sold is helping to protect valuable habitat as well as contributing to a decent life for the farmers and their families. About 5 years ago, we were joined by Bill Wilson and his colleagues from New England, who wanted to use the Birds & Beans name in the USA – and out of that has grown a valuable partnership that is spreading the word to an even wider audience. Our coffee receives rave reviews from all who try it. Together, we are building a different kind of coffee brand.

This month we are undertaking a ‘bird survey’ in Nicaragua on the 450 farm co-op, UCA San Juan del Rio Coco, co-sponsored by York University and Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. We buy a good deal of coffee directly from the co-op. The conservation biologists conducting the survey reported 21 species of migrant birds present in the first few days of field work.

Bird Friendly habitat
Shade coffee – and quality bird habitat – as far as the eye can see.

Supporting this kind of work is unheard of for companies of our size as it doesn’t have a commercial payoff. So why do we do it?  Simple.  Its because we have aligned our business with our true values and our business expresses them just as we do. It isn’t a ploy or a marketing gimmick.  It is what we care about.  We founded this company as a vehicle to promote conservation and this is an opportunity to do just that.

The study represents new work in this region and so the findings will add to the body of knowledge of how that ecosystem functions.  This will help our growers to make better decisions on how to manage their farms in the future.

Thanks to all of you who have supported us and have enjoyed a different cup of coffee….

 

Gaia Estate – A Bird Friendly® Coffee Grower’s Perspective

A guest post from Jefferson Shriver and Gabriela Narvaez are Owners of Gaia Estate, Diriamba, Nicaragua:

The planet is becoming an increasingly inhospitable place for agriculture.  This is especially the case with full sun, rain fed monocrops grown in the tropics where pounding rain, high winds, and long dry periods are an annual experience.

Fortunately, coffee is a forest crop by nature, and forests can create natural buffers for such inhospitable conditions.  As organic, agro-forestry farmers, we just help that process along a bit.

Shade Grown Coffee at Gaia
The ecosystem is functioning in this “agro-forest” on the Gaia Estate.

At Gaia Estate in Nicaragua, coffee was first grown here over 100 years ago by simply clearing a bit of the underbrush from a natural forest. The place looks much the same today, with over seventy species of trees on 90 acres.  A thick blanket of leaf litter covers the ground all year, maintaining soil humidity, preventing erosion, and building up organic matter that our coffee loves. Our three story shade canopy of fruit and forest trees shields the coffee from strong rains and volatile temperatures, and slows the maturation of the coffee beans, giving the coffee more complexity and sweetness.  The limes, bananas and avocado intercropped with coffee as that first shade layer give us plenty of fruit year round for our family, workers, and a bit of extra to sell.  Most people say they feel they are walking through a park when they come to Gaia.  We feel much the same way – like gardeners in a forest – and can’t imagine farming any other way.

Picking at Gaia Estate
Pickers pick only the ripe red coffee cherries at Gaia Estate. They allow the green ones to ripen and return for them another day.

We know that Gaia is a refuge for migratory and resident birds, and a host of animals and insects.  This is also very important to us.  Since assuming ownership of the farm six years ago, we are seeing greater populations of migratory and resident birds, butterflies, lizards, iguana, and rabbits. We’ve even spotted a few deer and monkeys recently, the first to come back to this area in a long time. We don’t have to worry about the risk of worker exposure to poison because we don’t use pesticides or herbicides.  The soil is alive with micro-organisms, worms and ants that all co-exist here given we use only organic fertilizer and repellents.

Butterfly
Bird Friendly® certified coffee farms are a functioning ecosystem with biodiversity that rivals rainforest.

I am hesitant to over-romanticize, however.  Annually we apply a half bucket of organic fertilizer to every plant.  Compare that to the bottle cap of urea we see our neighbors apply to their conventionally grown coffee plants, and you can see that our production costs can get expensive.  All of the coffee cherry residues, horse and cow manure, and fallen branches we convert to charcoal are used to make a rich blend of organic fertilizer.    Then we hand weed instead of applying herbicides like Round Up or paraquat.  While this is also time consuming and more expensive, it allows us to let tree seedlings – spread by birds and bats throughout the farm – grow back and replenish the agro-forestry system over time.  These kinds of practices also generate more employment, meeting a critical need in the local community.  Finally, there is nothing easy about regulating the shade of trees 20 meters high. The pruning of branches is necessary to allow some sunlight in for the coffee, and requires careful handling for both the tree and the coffee below.

Pruned Tree
On Bird Friendly® certified farms, trees must retain 80% coverage after pruning!

Not everyone farms this way.  As I write, in addition to the songs of at least a half dozen birds, I also hear the whirring of chainsaws in the distance.  The value of trees in Nicaragua are calculated when they are horizontal, in board feet, not vertical and alive.  Deforestation in Nicaragua, like much of Latin America, continues at a relentless pace.  Tragically, most coffee markets do not reward farmers for growing coffee in the shade.  There is no market value assigned to shade.  Bird Friendly is a small but significant exception to the industry standard.  If more people buy SMBC Bird Friendly coffee and demand grows, we would love to share the Birds & Beans and Bird Friendly certified market with our neighbors. After all, we are not an island – what our neighbors are doing ultimately affect our growing conditions and the health of the ecosystem we take care of at Gaia.  The orioles and warblers and thrushes, if they could speak to us during their short visits here annually, would probably agree.

Jefferson Shriver and Gabriela Narvaez are Owners of Gaia Estate.  Consider a visit to the farm – www.gaiaestate.com

People and Coffee

Coffee is a huge global industy. There is a lot of money in the coffee industry, but very little goes to the growers. The price of coffee is set by global commodity markets. The forces at work in these markets are skewed by the interests of a few huge multinational food companies. These forces are utterly out of the control of growers. As a result, coffee prices fluctuate from prices that can sustain the lives of growers near the poverty line in good years to below the price of production in others. The lives of these growers are uncertain and marginal.

Mural2

Fair trade is intended to by-pass the global coffee distribution chain and define another kind of trade. Trade that provides stability to the growers by offering credit, establishing long term trading relationships, and establishing minimum prices that enable a decent life to growers.

Marvin's kids try birding

Long term relationships give coffee farmers and their families confidence in their future. With this confidence children can go to school believing that they will have the opportunity to complete their studies. Access to credit enables growers to band together in co-operatives and invest in alternate processing and storage facilities and establish their own export companies that deal directly with importers into North America, Europe and Australia.

The benefits of this method of distribution are just as profound to the end consumer: because the beans from the single origin are not mingled with others from the country, the quality and uniqueness of the single origin are maintained. This means that the growers become rewarded for the quality character of their particular crop and that gives them incentive to continually improve. In this process, growers shift from labourers to connoisseurs and the end consumer here in North America is the ultimate beneficiary. Win-Win Fair Trade USA

All of the coffee purchased by Birds and Beans is fairly traded. Almost all our coffees are certified by FairTrade USA and the rest by the Rainforest Alliance.