It used to be in decades past that shade-grown coffee was considered better for the environment. Farmers used numerous kinds of trees to cast shade, providing some diversity. But everywhere I went today, there was just one kind of tree, a silky oak, an import from Australia. It’s been in Guatemala for decades. It's not a real oak, by the way, but more like a eucalyptus.
You can see it in the background in the photo above, taken at the San Pedrano Cooperative near Esquintla.
The silky oak can be shaped with pruning, and is highly frost resistant, two qualities that coffee farmers like. Other trees, like the endemic Inga, can die in a hard frost. So the silky oak has taken over at some coffee farms.
One of the benefits of shade-grown coffee disappears if the trees providing the shade are a monoculture. Juan Carlos Toledo, an agent with the Federation of Coffee-growing Agricultural Cooperatives of Guatemala, said some U.S.-based specialty coffee buyers were pressuring Guatemalan growers to diversify their trees to replicate natural forest.
I’ll sip to that.
I've just come across what looks like a Guatemalan coffee industry website that indicates the silky oak, also known as by its Latin name as Gravilea Robusta, is used on only 22 percent of coffee farms in the nation. If still up to date, that would be good news.