Coffee: Traditional vs. Technified

January 1, 1999 by Gregory Gough

Introduced by the French to the New World in the 1700s, coffee has been grown in a traditional manner for hundreds of years. In such a system coffee, a shrub, is grown under a canopy of trees. The tree canopy provides many services for the coffee farmer:

  • protection from violent weather; this reduces erosion and soil loss
  • leaf litter adds nutrients
  • shade inhibits weed growth
  • additional products for sale including timber and fruit

The trees mimic the natural forest so that up to 70 percent of the birds found in a natural forest also live in shade-grown coffee plantations.

In the 1960s, efforts were made to technify coffee, to maximize production using modern agricultural techniques. In such a system the shade canopy is removed and coffee shrubs are more densely planted. Agrochemicals are added to fertilize and to control pests.

shade grown coffee that looks like a forest
rows of coffee bushes in the sun

Traditional (left) and Technified (right) coffee

Technified coffee can increase yields, but also increases costs: it needs more laborers plus the cost of agrochemicals. Also, the coffee farmer is at the mercy of the price of coffee, there are no other agricultural products to fall back on, as in a traditional farm, if the price of coffee drops.

More about the history of coffee in a slide show

This article summarizes the information in this scientific paper:

Rice, R.A. 1999. A Place Unbecoming: the Coffee Farm of northern Latin America. The Geographical Review, 89: 554-579.

Download scientific paper