Nicaraguan shade coffee: Finca Esperanza Verde

by on March 26, 2009

Last winter, I spent some time in Chiriqui, Panama, and visited some coffee farms. I summarized what I found in my post “What shade coffee looks like.”

I’ve just returned from Nicaragua, where I spent a week at Finca Esperanza Verde doing bird and insect surveys, and especially bird banding. FEV is located near San Ramon in the central highlands of Nicaragua’s Matagalpa department. It consists of about 106 ha, of which 10 are in active coffee production; a handful cover the organic garden, small coffee washing facility, and eco-lodge; and the rest are in native forest, forest restoration, and fallow shade coffee.

Coffee under diverse native shade, Finca Esperanza Verde.

We were participating in the fifth year of a banding project initiated by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and the research was done entirely in the coffee production area, shown above.

In the shade continuum from rustic to shaded monoculture described in my introductory post “What is shade-grown coffee,” the production areas I saw fell into the highly desirable traditional polyculture category. Recall that one reason certifying shade coffee can be so complex is that coffee is often grown in a matrix of different crops and land uses and varying levels of shade management depending on location within a farm.  Yet every area I visited at FEV had the same lush growth and diverse shade.

Epiphytes and vines are left on the shade trees, providing important foraging and nest sites for birds and other fauna, greatly increasing biodiversity.

FEV is certified organic, and is being actively courted by Rainforest Alliance for certification and use as a model farm. I believe FEV also qualifies for Smithsonian Bird-Friendly certification, and that is being looked into as well. More on that in a future post.

Leaves from the shade trees provide a thick, natural mulch for the coffee, and help curtail soil erosion and moisture loss while offering nutrients.

Even more so than the areas we visited in Panama, Finca Esperanza Verde and other shade coffee farms are critical to birds and other wildlife in Nicaragua. We were stunned at the deforestation. It’s not due to human development, but to agriculture (mostly non-commercial) and (especially) cattle grazing. Shade coffee farms appeared to be one of the only land uses that preserved a lot of native trees.

During our brief stay, we counted well over 100 bird species, including nearly two dozen species of migratory songbirds that breed in North America. Over 30 species of migrant songbirds have been recorded at the finca, and the overall bird list is approaching 300 species. We observed or banded several species new to the finca ourselves.

You can read more about the migratory bird species we encountered at the Rouge River Bird Observatory’s blog Net Results. I thought I would cover some of the resident species here, focusing on a few of the species that we banded. Bird banding is an excellent complement to bird surveys — some of the most common bird species we saw were rarely captured, and we rarely observed many of the species we captured.

Crimson-collared Tanagers (Ramphocelus sanguinolentus) favor areas of dense shrubs in second growth, but will also come to trays of fruit placed at feeding stations.

White-breasted Wood-wren (Henicorhina leucosticta) is a forest species that favors dense tangles, especially around fallen trees.

Cocoa Woodcreeper (Xiphorhynchus susurrans) prefers gallery forest and older second growth, and forages on large trees by probing the bark, epiphytes, mossy clumps, and vines -- which wouldn't be left on trees in intensively managed coffee farms.

I was happy to band several Black-headed Nightingale-Thrushes (Catharus mexicanus), since they are closely related to the species that I research at home. These shy, elusive birds prefer thick cover and forage mostly near the ground or in the leaf litter, conditions they would not find on a sun coffee farm.

Not only is this farm great for biodiversity, it produces fantastic coffee. It placed 10th in the 2007 Nicaraguan Cup of Excellence. Coffee from Finca Esperanza Verde is sold exclusively to Counter Culture Coffee, where it is the main component of their Cafe San Ramon.

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Revised on March 23, 2014

Posted in Birds and other biodiversity,Coffee regions

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