Interview with Don Tito from La Milagrosa Coffee Farm in Boquete

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Interview with Don Tito from La Milagrosa Coffee Farm in Boquete

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Out of all of the coffee farmers in Boquete, Sr. “Don Tito” Hector Vargas' is my absolute favorite. Tito is a native Chiricano farmer, which means he has all the charm in the world mixed with just the right amount of pride. Considering the success that his coffee farm, “La Milagrosa” has earned, he is down right humble! Especially if you understand the story behind it all.

Though Don Tito won’t gush about his awards, his specialty cafe is consistently ranked in the top 8 producers in Boquete at the annual Best of Panama festival held in April or May each year.

I went to visit Don Tito recently to find out about the history of his farm La Milagrosa. I hope you enjoy the interview from our shared time together (for more about touring this coffee plantation, check out this blog post).

Me with Don Tito at the workshop of his Milagrosa Coffee Farm
Me with Don Tito at the workshop of his Milagrosa Coffee Farm

Don Tito, how did you get started in coffee farming?

It was not easy! When I was a teenager, I had many dreams of leaving Boquete and living in Canada, Brazil or Venezuela. I went to Panama City and only lasted a few weeks. I missed Boquete! Although all of my friends, parents, and wise advisers counseled me to take advantage of the opportunity to get a good education in another country (I had been given a scholarship), I went against everyone's advice and spent all of the money I had saved on buying 3 hectares of land in the mountains of Boquete.

In those times, everyone had coffee trees or some land with coffee because it grows very well in Boquete. So since I had grown up with it, it was a natural thing for me to work with. However, back then, no one made much money off of coffee unless you were a huge farm (Specialty Coffee wasn't well known).

I remember distinctly a wise counselor told me that I won’t see a profit on this land for 30 years.

Well, he was wrong. It took me 25 years. :)

I started growing coffee right away because it takes about 10 years for the plants to mature and begin producing enough fruit for a good harvest. I would spend a few days a week on my farm and I took odd jobs to support myself in the meantime.

Don Tito is always growing new coffee trees from the ones that are producing the best quality beans
Don Tito is always growing new coffee trees from the ones that are producing the best quality beans

Wow, you have A LOT of patience!

Well actually I tried to sell the farm twice during that 25 year period before the farm became profitable. But the hand of God didn’t allow it to sell, so I was stuck with it.

I really didn’t have a choice but to keep going on with the work. I wasn’t ready to call it a complete waste after putting 5, 10 years into it. So since I couldn’t sell it, I just kept on with it hoping one day all the work would pay off.

The result of Don Tito's hard work is a beautiful organic coffee farm with shade grown coffee that is home to a vast amount of wildlife and gorgeous birds
The result of Don Tito's hard work is a beautiful organic coffee farm with shade grown coffee that is home to a vast amount of wildlife and gorgeous birds

As we know, your farm is called “The Miraculous”. Explain to us why you decided on that name.

Everything that has happened to this farm has been because of God’s hand. Or you could say, “everything happens for a reason.”

This farm has survived through a lot of hardships. I was never given financial help by banks or any investors, although I applied. For being such a small farm (5 hectares now), no one thought I would ever be able to produce enough to pay back a loan. There were many crises in the price of coffee back in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. No one was making any money so Panamanian banks didn’t want to give out loans to coffee producers (unless they were very large-scale).

Therefore, I had to do everything myself. I created a very artisanal process, building coffee processing machines from old car parts and other old machines. There was no electricity at the farm either in those times! But even when I had the proper machines built and had finally received my production permits from the government, I still couldn’t sell my coffee. There were too many producers and the price was low, so I had no buyers other than friends.

The remains of an old jeep that Don Tito took apart to build his very own machines to process the coffee... which are still used today!
The remains of an old jeep that Don Tito took apart to build his very own machines to process the coffee... which are still used today!

Each time I tried to sell my farm was also a failure; no one wanted to buy it at a reasonable price. It was a business after all; I needed to make a profit off of it since I had built my entire life around it and invested my life savings into it!

I decided to dabble in the tourism sector and began giving tours of my farm. This helped supplement my income and eventually led to my first big international sale, something I didn’t predict from the beginning. I had no connections internationally, so I had always tried to enter the national market. But as luck would have it, I made it in the international market and to this day, I have never sold in the Panamanian market.

So it has always been an uphill battle for me, but I had no choice but to endure and move forward.

Can you see my face of true surprise? Coffee Roasters made by Don Tito using random car parts
Can you see my face of true surprise? Coffee Roasters made by Don Tito using random car parts.

Tell me about when your business finally turned profitable.

Since the coffee that I was producing wasn’t selling in the national market, I decided to look for other ways to earn money. I always was doing something on the side, but in 2000 I gave tourism a shot. I started offering tours on my farm, around Boquete, and I even took groups to Bocas del Toro. I enjoyed meeting people from around the world and they liked my tours and many took an interest in my coffee.

In 2005, a group of Japanese tourists visited my farm and on the spot, a man offered to purchase my entire production for the year. After that, everything changed.

That one sale breathed life back into my coffee business. I developed a website and the following year I sold to Taiwan, in 2007 I sold to Norway, and in 2008 I broke into the United States market. Again, selling green coffee beans (not the roasted beans ready for brewing).

Trying new things and not giving up is what ultimately open the doors to success for Don Tito. Here you can see Explora Ya guide Erick Miranda during a coffee tour at Don Tito's coffee farm.
Trying new things and not giving up is what ultimately open the doors to success for Don Tito. Here you can see Explora Ya guide Erick Miranda during a coffee tour at Don Tito's coffee farm.

Roughly how many plants do you have on your 5 hectares and how much coffee do you produce annually?

We have around 20,000 plants and we produce between 10,000 - 15,000 pounds of green coffee beans (for export) each year (some years are better than others weather-wise).

What sort of coffee plants are grown on your farm?

The main plants that we cultivate are Geisha, Typica, Catuai, and Caturra. We also have smaller sections of Bourbon, Pache, Mundo Novo and Pacamara.

What are your future plans, Don Tito?

Oh, I have so many ideas. But we are so busy with the coffee production every year, I don’t usually have enough time to focus on new things.

I’m also quite happy with the coffee production that we have now. Everything is running smoothly with no problems, so I caution myself to get started into something new where there will inevitably be new problems to solve and work through. Let's say I've already been through that process and it took quite a while!

The ideas that keep coming back to me are getting into the processing (and possibly production?) of cacao (or chocolate beans) and also "raspadura", a traditional Panamanian block of natural sugar made directly from sugar cane. I would like to be able to provide this variety of production of traditional Panamanian delicacies to tourists who come to my farm.

Don Tito is always coming up with new ideas but currently he is devoting most of his time to his coffee farm which is obviously very labor intensive. Here you can see organic fertilizer made from coffee husks and other organic byproducts from the production process.
Don Tito is always coming up with new ideas but currently he is devoting most of his time to his coffee farm which is obviously very labor intensive. Here you can see organic fertilizer made from coffee husks and other organic byproducts from the production process.

If people want to tour your coffee farm in Boquete, how can they set this up?

I recommend contacting Explora Ya since all of their coffee tours are done at our farm. They have great bilingual guides to explain to you about the history of coffee, variety of coffee plants, processing and roasting.

And if people from abroad want to purchase your coffee, how can they do this?

Unfortunately I am not currently selling packaged coffee abroad (only available on my farm in Panama), but I hope to start this sometime in the future. Keep checking back at my website for updates: http://panacoffee.com. Right now it depends who buys my coffee each year after the Best of Panama Auction takes place.

The only place in Panama where you can currently buy Don Tito's coffee is at his farm.
The only place in Panama where you can currently buy Don Tito's coffee is at his farm.

FIND MORE ABOUT COFFEE TOURS IN BOQUETE, PANAMA... »

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Search our blog if you're visiting Panama! From must do's, where to party or eat, to which beaches and hiking trails you shouldn't miss, you'll find great insider info about Bocas del Toro, Panama City and Boquete, as well as Panamanian culture, customs and traditions, and certainly tips and advice for learning Spanish while in our country! We've been writing about all things Panama for over 10 years and nothing beats local knowledge from the locals themselves.


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