The economics of farming tea requires several assumptions, the most intractable being how tea is valued by individuals and society. Of course, we can run the numbers, to estimate the tangible (leaf) return on investment. A mature tea bush should yield about 1/2 to 1 pound of tea per season (5-6 months per year). Making the tea requires either hand-plucking and processing, or machines that will lop of the top and automate more or less of the processing. Doing it all by hand provides more control and is thought to yield a higher quality tea, using only the youngest leaves. But many people will argue that machine harvesting makes good enough tea and is the only way to balance the equation. The question is, what is the true value of tea?
We are used to paying a fraction for tea as we do for coffee, especially if it comes in tea bags in boxes on our grocery shelves. And most of the time, it is certainly good enough. But really good tea is valued more by many tea-lovers, who are often willing to pay more for a higher quality product. For those selling local tea at farmer's markets, growers may also earn more than they could ever get at a super market. Customers who care where their food is grown, who like to feel the connection to the growers, are likely to value local tea much more so than the broken leaves and leaf dust in the generic box of grocery store tea.
Such are the costs, yields and cultural values. I also personally value the process of growing and making my own tea. I love working with the earth, the plants and the leaf, and love the smells and tastes of freshly processed tea. Altogether, these outcomes are hard to put into an equation.
Money+time+energy = tea+pleasure+health.
I've haven't yet weighed my own tea regularly enough to estimate our total yield. Nor have I recorded the number of hours I've spent plucking and processing, or the costs of hired help for enlarging and maintaining the garden. (Paying for labor, for me, is about valuing individuals who work the land and care for the plants, while others value machines for their efficiency). Now that I have more tea than I can drink myself and gift to friends and family, I face the question of how much to charge for a sample? Perhaps a pot of local homegrown tea is worth at least as much as a fancy coffee drink. How much to sell for wholesale? How much is it worth to me, and what will it be worth to others? Enough to sustain itself? Perhaps. But certainly enough to bring a lifetime of pleasure and a legacy crop of tea!