Coffee: Sun-Grown or Shade-Grown?

Coffee plants want to be grown in the shade, which is better for the flavor and the environment.

Coffee plants thrive in the warm (but not too warm) areas between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, an area nicknamed the “coffee belt” (although, as global warming continues the areas in which coffee plants can grow is shrinking). These evergreen plants grow to be about 12ft tall and, while they like the warmth, they also like the shade. Coffee plants naturally grow best underneath the canopy of trees. Traditionally people would collect the coffee berries from plants growing wild around the forest and then process the seeds to make coffee. Enter industrialization.

Sun-tolerant coffee plants grown in efficient rows for sun-grown coffee. Photo by Shade Grown Coffee film.

Here Comes The Sun

From the 1970s to the early 1990s coffee producers were encouraged by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to “upgrade” their processes and switch from shade-grown production to sun cultivation. Sun-tolerant plants had been engineered to better handle direct sunlight. With sun-grown cultivation you can grow coffee plants in greater density, harvest beans more efficiently through mechanization, producing higher yields, making more money. This isn’t without costs.

One of the first steps for sun-grown coffee is deforestation (which increases global warming). Without trees there are no fallen leaves serving as mulch keeping weeds down. Leaves also biodegrade adding nutrients to the soil. This means sun-cultivated coffee requires more herbicides and fertilizers than shade-grown coffee. Further, when there are less trees there are less birds, and without as many birds to eat the insects, you need more pesticides. All of this means more chemicals on the plants and in the soil.

Made in the Shade

While still incorporating trees and other vegetation, modern shade-grown coffee farms can arrange their coffee plants more efficiently than former traditional practices. Even though this usually means lower yields and longer harvest times compared to sun-grown coffee, shade-grown coffee sells at a premium which can compensate producers for these factors.

The trees of shade-grown coffee farms serve as homes to hundreds of bird species. In Peru for example, the coffee plants of sun-grown coffee farms are home to around 61 bird species. This is in stark contrast to the trees of Peruvian shade-grown coffee farms which are home to 243 bird species. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center has said that, “shade-grown coffee production is the next best thing to a natural forest.”

As for the coffee itself, shade-grown coffee plants produce beans with higher density, developing natural sugars, which makes for better tasting coffee. Sun-grown coffee speeds up the growing process, which is good for maximizing efficiency, but it also creates higher acidity resulting in a more bitter taste.

People in Ethiopia, sitting in the shade, processing shade-grown coffee.

So shade-grown tastes better, requires less chemicals, it helps hundreds of bird species, and it helps stop global warming. Next time you’re buying coffee spend the extra few cents for shade-grown.

Added info: Coffee beans frequently come with little logos attesting to various positive attributes in which the coffee was produced. The certification that best represents the environmental benefits of shade-grown coffee is the Bird-Friendly label from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.

Bird-Friendly is widely considered the gold-standard in coffee certification as it means the coffee is organic, shade-grown, and helps the local ecosystem. That said, given the various benchmarks that must be achieved, it’s hard to become certified as Bird-Friendly which means it’s hard to come by Bird-Friendly coffee.

Roses Instead of Cocaine

Most roses sold in the United States come from Colombia.

Most of the Valentine’s Day roses sold in the United States come from Colombia. Roses from Colombia make up around 60% of US florist rose sales and they account for most of the roses sold in supermarkets (and supermarkets make up about half of US flower sales).

In the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, Colombia ships about 150 million roses to the United States. Walmart alone purchases about 24 million Colombian roses for the holiday. Upwards of 30 to 35 flights take off from Bogota each day filled with flowers, flying mostly to the United States.

Sniff Flowers, Not Cocaine

Between 1990 and 2018 American grown roses lost 95% of their market share, from 545 million roses sold to less than 30 million. So what happened? In 1991 the US government passed the Andean Trade Preference Act with Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru. This eliminated tariffs on certain products, including cut flowers. The legislation was a carrot (as opposed to the stick) approach to encourage cocaine producing countries to produce & export something that wasn’t cocaine and make money in the process.

The system has had questionable success in curtailing the production of cocaine, but it’s been a big success for Colombian roses. Colombia now grows 20,000 acres of flowers across over 300 industrial farms. The flower industry directly employs around 90,000 Colombians and indirectly employs 40,000 more in adjacent industries. The biggest loser in this agreement has been the American cut flower industry. The American companies still in operation have transitioned into growing higher-end roses that sell for more money but are intended for special events and weddings.

Dum Dums Mystery Flavor

The mystery flavor solves a logistical problem

In manufacturing you want as little machine downtime as possible. When the machines aren’t running they aren’t making your product, and you aren’t as profitable as you could be. It’s all about efficiency. The Akron Candy Company of Bellevue, Ohio created Dum Dums lollipops in 1924, eventually selling the product to the Spangler Candy Company in 1953. There were originally seven flavors but they broadened out to 16 flavors. To maintain flavor integrity the machines must be cleaned between flavors – this removes any remnants of the previous flavor and prepares the machines for a pure new flavor. This also creates machine downtime.

The solution: the mystery flavor. To maintain machine efficiency you want to start the next flavor right as you finish the previous flavor. Instead of shutting down the machines, the mystery flavor is created in this liminal time when two flavors are moving through the same machine at the same time. The end of the one flavor and the beginning of the next mix together in different amounts creating ever-changing new flavors. The Dum Dums’ mystery flavor isn’t just one flavor. The mystery flavor is always an unpredictable mix of flavors. It’s a fun game to guess which two flavors are making your version of the mystery flavor, and it’s a clever production solution.

Added info: In 2015 Spangler ran a limited time campaign and produced three specific flavors, outside of the normal flavors, to be the mystery flavor. These were pizza, popcorn, and bacon flavored Dum Dums. Also the name Dum Dums was chosen because a sales manager felt it was a name children could both say and remember.

Tide for Cash

Tide laundry detergent is a popular product to steal in exchange for cash and/or drugs.

During economic recessions the products that continue to have strong sales numbers are the products with desirable powerful brand names. Cheerios, McDonalds, Kleenex, Huggies, Coca-Cola, Tylenol – these are all strong “recession-proof” brands. Tide, which is the best selling laundry detergent in the world, is also a strong recession-proof brand, but it has an additional ignominious distinction. Tide is a popular product to steal as a de facto street currency to exchange for cash and/or drugs.

Beginning around 2011 thieves started stealing Tide from stores around the USA. Some would grab a few bottles and run, others would load entire shopping carts and stroll right out the door. Over several visits, Patrick Costanzo of St. Paul, Minnesota stole almost $6,000 of Tide from a Walmart. Some stores were losing $10,000 to $15,000 a month from people stealing Tide. The stolen bottles of Tide are exchanged for $5 in cash or $10 worth of weed or crack. Dealers then sell the bottles through various middlemen at normal retail prices, or even discounted prices, but still making a substantial profit. Finally the stolen Tide appears on shelves at corner stores, flea markets, and sometimes even back at the store it was originally stolen from via shady local wholesalers.

Part of what makes Tide a popular brand is also makes it a great product for the black market. It doesn’t spoil, it’s a desirable brand name, and everyone needs to wash their clothes. It’s also very difficult to trace its origins, so once it’s stolen it’s hard to tell where it came from. As long as Tide remains popular people will find reasons to steal it.