Conversation with Milvia and her Goddaughter Melissa in Boquete, Panama. Recorded March 26, 2013.
When did we start? My husband took charge of the finca in 1946. His father died that year. He was 18. And he was in charge of the farm. His family was from Sweden. His mother and his father. He was born in David.
Here, we have cafetales and some animals. That’s the business today. We have various hectares of coffee. We cultivate them and sell in cherries, as red fruit. We started harvesting in September, and we’re pretty much done now in April. Right now we’re still collecting coffee.
There used to be a train, right? That came from David?
Ah yes, it came from David right up into town. You’re making me remember a lot! I was born in ’40. And the train was here until ’46- I think.
So it was your husband’s father who planted everything here?
And my husband too. He also planted coffee. [His father] came in 1911.
Melissa: He was one of the founders of Boquete.
Milvia: He lived in the Canal Zone and worked there. And when the work changed [because the Canal was done] some people went one way and some people went others. And he came here.
And I suppose at that point it was pure mountain.
Pure mountain. There weren’t cafetales. They went around on horseback. And he used to process it all right here too, until 1972. Then he started bringing it to the central beneficio in Cochea.
Melissa was telling me you also have Christmas tress planted?
Ah the Christmas trees! Yes, yes, to sell at Christmas time.
But you have quite a lot of coffee. 40 hectares?
Correct, correct. Maybe you can see a man way up there? [She points out up to the mountainside where I can see a tiny dot among the green and grey.] He’s picking. Very high up.
Is there a part that was affected by roya?
Yes. It will be a big pain to fumigate it all. They were spraying before to protect it, but I guess we’ll have to do it again.
Those bird houses are pretty cool; I haven’t seen anything like that.
We have more than 200 doves! And there are some goats roaming the cafetal.
So you must have a bunch of employees to be able to take care of all of this?
We have 20. During the main harvest time there are many more. And they finished harvesting the oranges early this year. You want to see? We can walk around.
In all this time what has been the biggest change you’ve seen in the coffee business?
Well, there have been so many changes! Maybe Melissa can explain more than I can.
Melissa: Well, starting with the price. It changes a lot, depending on quality too. There a few differences in the harvest…and there are climate changes in well. But, more than anything, the change is in the price. Because it’s varied so much. There were years where it was at $12 and they were telling me there were years it was at $2 a lata. [5 gallon bucket brimming with fresh cherries, weighing in around 30 pounds.]
Milvia: And they paid the harvesters $0.70.
Melissa: At that time, the harvester, at $0.70, things weren’t as expensive. Now, they’re paying $0.75. Per lata. And a lata is 30 pounds. And now they’re weighing it; they used to measure by lata [volume]. I think that it’s a little more fair for the harvester and the farms. Because sometimes the lata fits more if they’re stuffing the cherries in, and then the picker looses more. But if they’re weighing it they’re paying for every gram.
Because 30 pounds, cherry by cherry, when it’s raining out or hot and sunny, is pretty hard. Here, my Godmother is very conscientious with the workers. They have their nice rooms over there, they have electricity. Their children go to the doctor if they need to. We pay them social security. Most places don’t pay that for harvesters, but we do. Also because most of our employees are permanent.
Milvia: More than 20 years. We have various generations.
Melissa: During the harvest, the children, the parents, grandparents, grandchildren all come and pick together.
Milivia: One thing that’s tough now is that before, a boy of 9 or 10 could go work with his family. Now he can’t. They passed a law that boys can’t do anything. So the kids are now just hanging around because they have nothing to do.
Yeah, I don’t understand why they can’t work during the summers. School is out. They have nothing to do.
It used to be that the youngest ones would be with their parents, picking up all the cherries that fell to the ground. Now no.
It seems like they might be better off if they’re with their families.
Melissa: There is some permission that kids of 12-16 can work, but they have to go to an office at the Department of Labor with a parent and fill out a bunch of forms that state that they’re working with their parents. Then they’re allowed in the cafetal. Without any problems.
I understand that children should be in school, but the harvest coincides with summer. It always has.
There are families that bring in 25 latas during the peak harvest. Here, there are three varieties of coffee; Geisha, Catuai, and Caturro. The finca is divided into 28 lots, with different numbers for every lot.
To be able to track where you’re harvesting. And when the harvest is over you have to start pruning?
Milvia: And spraying, and fertilizing. There’s always work to be done. All our workers are indigenous, not Latinos. The Latinos pretty much don’t even want to go to the cafetal; just to the office.
Melissa: I’ve seen kids who were born here and now are working. And the elderly who spend the days with their families. And this shows that this is a good place to work, because if not they wouldn’t have stayed for so many generations.
[I shut off my phone and take out my camera in preparation to walk around the property.
End of recording.]
The context of this meeting and the details of this farm are some of the most curious of all my travels. To find out more about the mysteries of Milvia and Melissa, and to read more stories from and of Latin American coffeepeople, advance order your copy of “When Coffee Speaks” via Kickstarter today!