American Birding Podcast



Bird-friendly Coffee: Hope for Small Growers and Bird-friendly Habitat

It’s rather amazing that a blog post written by a woman in New York caught the attention of a coffee farmer in Costa Rica, which spurred bi-national support from a company with both Canadian and US roots to foster a new bird-friendly bird farm in Alajuela, Costa Rica. That’s the power of the Interwebs.

I have an inspiring story to share that gives hope to small coffee growers in the Americas while saving bird habitat. It also shows the power of blogs and social media to galvanize worldwide connections.

Photo-3 In the last few weeks I’ve written two posts on bird-friendly coffee: If Bird Watchers Did Their Part (here on the ABA blog), and Why Are You Waiting? (over at Birds, Words, & Websites). My point was to inspire coffee drinkers who have not yet started brewing from bird-friendly beans to start doing so. After all, if bird watchers care about birds both here and abroad, or even—gasp—just those that migrate from here to abroad, we MUST consider what effect our voracious consumption of cheap and irresponsibly grown coffee is having on habitat in the Central and South America.

By spreading the word I was simply hoping to inform and, if any one is listening, to drive consumer demand. And then a funny thing happened.

A coffee farmer in Costa Rica, who is also a birder/naturalist, popped up on my Facebook chat room to say, “Laura, thank you for telling me about bird-friendly coffee. Coffee farming is my first profession. I want a bird-friendly farm. Tell me how I do this.”

Admittedly, my first impression was “Whoa, you’re asking the wrong person.” I'm an expert at DRINKING coffee, not growing it.

But then I thought of all the wonderfully informed people who’d just entered my life as a result of the coffee blogs. So I took Oscar’s inquiry to them (Bill Wilson from Birds & Beans, Julie Craves, Kenn Kaufman, and others).

And things started to happen.

First, discussions about Costa Rica, birds, and coffee deepened. I learned that despite the country’s reputation as environmentally progressive, there are no bird friendly (BF) certified coffee plantations in all of Costa Rica. The country has great-tasting coffee but went for technified sun coffee in a big way.

Second, I learned that the BF certification process requires that a plantation first obtain organic certification. In relative terms, this is an expensive process that can take up to three years. During those three years, the farmer is “in conversion,” farming organically but not receiving any benefits of the price premiums placed on his crop. Temporarily, this places the farmer in what may feel like economic purgatory. Surely, from a conservation point of view, this is worth the effort, but it can produce untenable economic hardship for some small growers.

Then more I learned, the more complicated the issue became. Between historically high market prices, commodities, and higher land and labor costs, the outlook is not rosy for a largescale shift to BF certified coffee plantations in the Americas.

Yet here was Oscar asking how he can be part of this important movement toward bird-friendly beans. At first I thought all we could do was send a word of encouragement and a few website links for how to proceed.

But I soon found myself writing Oscar, a Latin American grower and a birder with a Facebook account, with this news:

“Oscar, I know people willing to help you obtain Bird Friendly certification. If you are serious about going Bird-Friendly and your beans are of high quality, then I know a company willing to

1)Pay for your BF certification

2)Buy your coffee at good price both during and after the three-year certification process

3)Arrange for a BF coffee advocate down to visit your farm.”

I could hardly believe what my fingers were typing. But I'm a believer, and I'm apparently not alone in that.

Credit for this exchange goes to Birds & Beans, which sells coffee that meets the demanding standards for BF beans set by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. Bill Wilson, the owner of Bird & Beans US, says that he and his Canadian Birds & Beans counterparts have adopted a “one farm at a time” model to foster a slow conversion in the market that will increase the availability of BF beans.

Understanding that undergoing BF certification presents short-term economic hardship in exchange for long-term gain, Birds & Beans “aims to make BF certification a cash-flow neutral process for the small grower, while providing a guaranteed market for the beans before and after certification,” according to Wilson. 

I couldn't wait for Oscar to go back to his coffee collective and spread the news to his colleagues. Even the ones who have no appreciation for birds might respond to this kind of incentive.

While it’s too soon to say how this particular case will turn out, it’s rather amazing that a blog post written by a woman in New York caught the attention of a coffee farmer in Costa Rica, which spurred bi-national support from a company with both Canadian and US roots to foster a new bird-friendly bird farm in Alajuela, Costa Rica.

This shows two things:

1)The power of the Internet (especially Mark Zuckerberg’s loved/hated creation) to make inspired connections and spread good ideas. Bloggers: you have a powerful platform, use it for good. You never know who is reading!

2)That despite the challenges, there are mechanisms in place that can help small, rustic coffee farms achieve BF certification. Let's keep our eye on the prize and work together for bird-friendly solutions.

At the end of the day, however, we all need to be drinking more bird friendly coffee for this to work. So if you didn't convert to BF coffee yet, I hope you will now.  Thanks for listening. Over and out.