Cafes De La Luna
Interview and Photography by Michael Marquand
Rich Lipner and his wife, Dee, thought they'd retire in Europe. In 2002, however, they visited a friend in Boqueté, Panama and everything changed. Three months later they flew back to Boqueté. Four days after landing, they bought an abandoned coffee farm.
Michael interviewed Rich about organic farming, his relationship with the community and "Farmer's Almanac" farming.
Can you tell me a little bit about your life and career before moving to Panama?
For the last 15 years of my career in the states, I was the Executive Director of Meals On Wheel Of San Francisco, a nonprofit organization that serves 3,000 meals daily to homebound elderly in San Francisco.
Why did you decide to move to Panama? Why Boqueté, Panama?
We came to Boquete in 2002 to visit a Panamanian friend who had worked in San Francisco. My wife and I had always planned to retire outside of the States, but Panama was not on our "radar." My wife had attended University in Italy, and in those days the dollar and Euro were in different positions, we thought we were headed to Italy. Our first visit to Boquete changed everything. Boquete was magical--the friendliest place we had ever been, it seemed like everyone wanted to practice their English with us. I couldn't walk down the street without a conversation with someone I'd just met. In those days, only a handful of foreigners, split pretty evenly between Europeans and North Americans. It was a sleepy agricultural village, not many fancy cars or large SUVs; most vehicles were old Toyota Farm trucks and the people still rode their horse in the middle of the village. We fell in love with the village. On the plane trip back to San Francisco, the lightbulb went off and we decide to return to Boquete for a "look." We came back three months later with the intention of buying a small piece of land to build a house on. We looked at property for one and a half days, and in the afternoon of the second day, they asked us if we would like to see an abandoned coffee farm. We said sure, why not (I knew nothing about coffee other than how to drink it). We saw the property on a Thursday evening and purchased it the next morning--an impulse buy that has clearly changed our lives. We knew nothing about farming, and when the shock wore off of what we had done, we had to figure out how to become coffee farmers. We have been very fortunate!
What made you fall in love with the property?
The property reminded me of vineyard land, and I suppose I always wanted to be a vintner, but could never afford the property in Northern California. Land prices in Boquete in those days were very affordable, and we thought if we didn't like it we could probably sell it back at a not too significant loss. (Plan B was to go into the peace corps.)
Why was the farm for sale?
The farm had been abandoned for five years, and when we appeared, this was the case for nearly 30 percent of the coffee farms throughout Central America between the years 1998 and 2003. This period was called "the coffee crisis of Central America." It occurred because coffee prices were so low that farmers could not afford to pay the pickers of the coffee cherries. They began to abandon their farms throughout Central America. In Columbia, coca replaced coffee on many farms as the cash crop.
Is coffee traditionally grown in Boqueté?
While coffee has been growing in Panama for more than 100 years, it was not until the variety of Arabica coffee, geisha, was acknowledged in 2004 that Boquete had been recognized as a "coffee capital of the world." The variables that attribute to growing great coffee are: microclimate, altitude and soil, and Boquete are exemplary in all three categories. The proximity to the volcano adds to the richness of the soil and altitude and microclimate speak for themselves.
What's the difference between organic and non-organic coffee?
The difference between organic and traditional grown coffee is the use of chemicals for growth stimulation and pest control in the traditionally grown coffee. To the best of my knowledge, there is no difference in flavor. The yields of traditional to organic are almost two to one, and there is very little financial premium or incentive to be organic, consequently, very little truly organic coffee on the market.
How do you cultivate your coffee with the phases of the moon? And what's the motivation behind that?
Lunar calendar farming is "Farmer's Almanac" farming, practiced all over the world for hundreds of years. The easiest way to explain is when the gravitational pull of the earth (controlled by the phases of the moon) is going downward we put things into the ground, plant and fertilize--with the thought that the earth more readily accepts them. When the earth pushes up, we take things out-weed and remove trees.
How do you source labor for your farm and what's your relationship like with your workers and with the local community in general?
Coffee workers around the world are an exploited workforce. In Panama, we have an agricultural minimum wage of $12.03 per day, and most workers are paid below this at $8 to $9 per day. In other parts of Central America, average salaries of $4 to $5 are normal--in Africa $1 to $2 per day. In Panama, the workforce is almost 100% comprised of the indigenous Nabe/Bugle people of Panama. In general, they are not treated well and not often given other opportunities. Our experience with workers is that if you treat people the way you expect to be treated everyone will prosper. Our farm manager has worked with us for 13.5 of the 14 years we have owned the property, his family is very much a part of our extended family. We encourage education on our farm, and all three of our permanent workers are enrolled at the university.
Was it difficult to figure out how to produce your coffee in such an ethical way while staying in business? How did you overcome that?
We have been extraordinarily fortunate! We are very much the exception to the rule, our coffee business now stands on its own financially, but only because of the touring side of our business. We are in the very enviable position of selling out of our coffee every year, but really our visitors are the ones who have made the business viable. Our coffee is sold in Panama City in Casa Sucre and Solomon's Deli, in Boquete at Hotel Panamonte, restaurant Colibri, Suger and Spice and Isla Verde. We are fortunate to be in a direct trade partnership with Woyton cafes and Roasterie Vier in Dusseldorf and Cologn and sold in the United States online at cafesdelaluna.com.
Dos Jefes translates to 'two heads?' How did you come up with that name?
The name dos jefes, two bosses, comes from my wife and I rarely agree on any one thing.