Shade trees: a determinant to the relative success of organic versus conventional coffee production


Greater understanding of the influences on long-term coffee productivity are needed to develop systems that are profitable, while maximizing ecosystem services and lowering negative environmental impacts. We examine a long-term experiment (15 years) established in Costa Rica in 2000 and compare intensive conventional (IC) coffee production under full sun with 19 agroforestry systems combining timber and service tree species with contrasting characteristics, with conventional and organic managements of different intensities. We assessed productivity through coffee yield and coffee morphological characteristics. IC had the highest productivity but had the highest yield bienniality; in the agroforestry systems productivity was similar for moderate conventional (MC) and intensive organic (IO) treatments (yield 5.3 vs. 5.0 t ha−1 year−1). Significantly lower yields were observed under shade than full sun, but coffee morphology was similar. Low input organic production (LO) declined to zero under the shade of the non-legume timber tree Terminalia amazonia but when legume tree species were chosen (Erythrina poepiggiana, Chloroleucon eurycyclum) LO coffee yield was not significantly different than for IO. For the first 6 years, coffee yield was higher under the shade of timber trees (Chloroleucon and Terminalia), while in the subsequent 7 years, Erythrina systems were more productive; presumably this is due to lower shade covers. If IC full sun plantations are not affordable or desired in the future, organic production is an interesting alternative with similar productivity to MC management and in LO systems incorporation of legume tree species is shown to be essential.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3



Bienniality index


Chloroleucon eurycyclum


Coffee resprout diameter


Erythrina poepiggiana


Coffee resprout height


Intensive conventional


Intensive organic


Low organic


Moderate conventional




Productive branch number of coffee resprouts


Total branch number of coffee resprouts


Terminalia amazonia


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The authors sincerely thank field workers and administrative staff of CATIE, in particular Luis Romero and Luis Araya for maintaining the experiment, Carolin Winter, Benno Pokorny and two anonymous reviewers for their inspiring revisions and Sergio Vilchez M. for statistical support. The initial establishment and first ten years of the experiment were mostly financed by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Particularly we appreciate the support with financial resources from Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (Consortium Research Program, CGIAR), ANR-Agrobiosphère MACACC project and the German Academic Exchange Service.

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Correspondence to Florian Schnabel.



See Table 8.

Table 8 Contrast results for coffee morphology: the variables height (cm), diameter (cm), N° total branches and N° productive branches for 2002 and 2014

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Schnabel, F., de Melo Virginio Filho, E., Xu, S. et al. Shade trees: a determinant to the relative success of organic versus conventional coffee production. Agroforest Syst 92, 1535–1549 (2018).

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  • Agroforestry systems
  • Coffee yield
  • Coffee morphology
  • Sustainable production
  • Shade trees
  • Biennial bearing