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The Accidental Coffee Farmer
When respected coffee farmer Andres Magaña Ortiz was deported from Hawaii after 30 years, his daughter Victoria had no choice but to take over.
Victoria Magaña Ledesma never intended to run a coffee farm. Studying Business Administration and Sociology at the University of Hawaii, she planned to join the management training program at the local Four Seasons Hotel and enter a career in hospitality. “I was going to climb the American corporate ladder,” she tells me.
Her father wanted her to get involved in the coffee industry with him, but “it didn’t excite me,” Magaña Ledesma says. In fact she told him as much—but then her father ran afoul of the US immigration system and with the flick of a pen both their lives changed forever.
Contrary to the Values of the Country
In 2017, after three decades in the United States during which time he’d become a respected coffee farmer on Hawaii’s Big Island and popular member of his community, Andres Magaña Ortiz was deported. He had been fighting to stay in the country since 2011 when the Obama administration had started deportation proceedings against him, but the even more draconian Trump immigration policy meant his appeal was rejected.
The judge in his case called the order “inhumane” and "contrary to the values of the country and its legal system”, but noted that he had no authority to block the order. “The government’s decision to remove Magaña Ortiz diminishes not only our country but our courts, which are supposedly dedicated to the pursuit of justice,” 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote. “It is difficult to see how the government’s decision to expel him is consistent with the President’s promise of an immigration system with ‘a lot of heart’.”
As well as being their father, Magaña Ortiz was also the family’s sole breadwinner. With two younger siblings and a step-mother unable to work, Magaña Ledesma, a junior in college at the time, took over running the business alongside her father’s farm crew.
“It’s not as neat as that, I mean for the first season the workers themselves were doing all the work—I would just come on Fridays and sign the checks,” Magaña Ledesma says. “I had to multitask, I didn’t want to stop my college career. I would go to school Monday through Thursday, come back Friday through Sunday and work out here. I would make sure the mill was running, I was depositing checks. You know, it was just a whole blur.”
A Popular and Respected Figure
Having left Mexico as a 15-year old, smuggled across the border to join his mother, Magaña Ortiz found work in California’s citrus fields before eventually making his way to Hawaii. “I grew up here on the Big Island, my entire life I grew up in the coffee fields,” Magaña Ledesma says. “My parents are Mexican immigrants, they migrated from Mexico to California and then to Hawaii in the 90s because it paid better to pick coffee. My dad thought it was a better move.”
Her father started out picking coffee before moving up to farm manager, which he did for over 15 years. After being let go from that job when the farm was sold and the new owners required documentation he didn’t have, Magaña Ortiz eventually purchased a farm and dilapidated mill and, after renovating the mill, worked with other small farmers to process their harvests.
“It wasn’t just him, his crew followed him when he was let go,” Magaña Ledesma explains. “It was a couple of guys who were loyal to him, and they really followed him through a tough time because you know, money wasn't exactly coming in steadily.”
Eventually they built a company that managed other small farms and would take in the cherry and process it. “Because that was ultimately the dream, right? Not to work for anybody else but to be able to have something sustainable for himself. And it’s hard to get it done—Hawaii was more lenient than the mainland, as we call it, but it is still difficult for undocumented immigrants to find jobs and find fair wages.”
The business was successful and Magaña Ortiz became a popular and respected figure in the Hawaii coffee industry, at one point managing 15 other farms while becoming known for his work fighting the coffee berry borer beetle. But after being stopped at a random inspection, the US government started deportation proceedings against him, which dragged out for years with temporary stays and appeals until he was ordered to leave in 2017.
Magaña Ortiz’s deportation order came 30 days before his daughter’s 21st birthday, when he would have been able to apply for a Green Card as her father. “There's still people that ask me like, ‘When is he coming back? We needed him for a farm’ and that's just the type of impact that he had on people,” Magaña Ledesma says. “He loves coffee. He was obsessed with it, and he loved doing his craft at the mill and at the farm.”
Learning the Family Business
After graduating from college, Magaña Ledesma took over her father’s business properly, continuing the farm management and milling aspect of it while also adding her own imprint with Misma Lani Farms. Misma Lani means “same sky” in a mix of Spanish and Hawaiian, which she has said was a way to reference the connection they still shared despite being separated.
“I just kind of settled into figuring out how the company ran, and his crew was amazing,” she says of the first few months after taking over full time. “They knew how to maintain the farms and that was the main thing. I had helped my dad with QuickBooks and all those things but I didn't really know how to process coffee.”
Magaña Ledesma downsized the management operation and looked towards the retail side of coffee where the profit margins were bigger and it wasn’t just processing and then wholesaling. “That was essentially what my dad was doing all the time, he was just wholesaling his green or his parchment, and that requires a lot of volume in order to stay afloat, and a lot more work.”
Instead Magaña Ledesma started experimenting with processing and fermentation, as well as roasting the coffee that Misma Lani produced. While they do grow specialty grade coffee, she explains, “where I consider us specialty is in our processing. I've only done it for about three years, but now I'm getting better at it with honey processing, learning about the different techniques and I'm hoping to get into fermentation. Right now we offer the honey processed and then we do a natural process.”
Most Hawaiian coffee is washed, which Magaña Ledesma explains is due to the humidity and rainfall—“You have to be very careful with how you process, because of mold”—but in contrast to most farms on the islands, Misma Lani is also starting to grow gesha and bourbon varieties. “They're really picking up [in popularity] but also the specialty processes are as well because coffee is kind of going in that direction,” Magana says.
Six Years Later
It has now been six years since her father was deported, so does the business now feel like it belongs to Magaña Ledesma or is the current setup merely temporary, awaiting his return?
“That was a really difficult part for me, because I went through a space where I wasn't really sure what I was doing,” she says. “But I think when my dad does come back, I think he will take the part that was his back, and I will take Misma Lani in a different direction. Now that this whole thing has happened, it’s really made me realize how important it is to advocate for my community. It's painful to grow up with that stigma around you and to always kind of be hiding your parents or your grandparents or whatever it is, and I didn't want anything to do with it.
“But this entire experience made me realize that I do want to be a voice and I want Misma Lani to be an advocate for this community of undocumented immigrants. Undocumented immigrants are so active within the US agricultural industry, and we rarely see people taking their product to the end. My dad was doing the farming and he was doing the wet milling, and then he was wholesaling because he didn't have the documentation to be able to take his business to the next level. So for me to be able to take Misma Lani forward—I do call it my baby, I believe that that part is mine. And I do want to create something around it that really advocates for my community of Latino immigrants.”