IT'S a sunny summer morning as three Americans clamber out of the back of a gray pickup truck, following a tall Guatemalan farmer named Martin Keller toward a row of coffee plants. Armed with notebooks, the Americans scribble furiously as the Guatemalan points with pride to the plants' bright-green cherries. Like a number of Guatemala's large coffee farmers, Keller is of German descent; three generations of his family worked Finca Santa Isabel before him. High in the hills in the department of Santa Rosa, southeast of Guatemala City, the air is cool and sweet and the setting picturesque, with soaring cedar trees sheltering a ravine thick with laurel, cuernavaca, oak, and inga. For a week David Griswold, Lindsey Bolger, and Betsy Buckley, all coffee buyers, have been scouring the hills of Costa Rica and Guatemala in search of shade-grown, habitat-friendly coffee. An importer based in Emeryville, California, Griswold runs Sustainable Harvest, a company that specializes in shade and organic coffee. Bolger, who is one of his clients, is the green-coffee buyer for Batdorf & Bronson, a roasting house in Olympia, Washington, that sells the fancy specialty coffees so popular now at coffeehouses like Starbucks. Buckley buys coffee from Bolger for her three Aurora cafés, in Atlanta, Georgia. All are relatively small operators who see selling shade coffee as good both for the environment and for business.
Finca Santa Isabel was the second plantation to be certified by "ECO-O.K.," one of several new environmental labels for coffee, which is backed by the Rainforest Alliance. The plantation isn't perfect from a naturalist's point of view: in parts the shade trees are sparse and consist of just a few species. Like most big coffee farmers, Keller uses some chemicals. And Finca Santa Isabel, a large plantation, is a far cry from the small cooperatives that fair traders -- those committed to paying coffee farmers a fair price for their product -- support. But the plantation has shade trees, virgin forest, and an ecologically sound mill, and the Kellers are conservationists. When the Americans ask if Keller will put in fruit and flowering trees to attract more birds, he agrees.