I've been thinking a lot about tea and sustainability recently. For farmers, growing tea can represent a major commitment, like a long term relationship, with all the work and satisfaction that comes with such endeavors. But the economic prospects of growing tea is the main hurdle now, as it was in past centuries, for anyone investing in U.S. Grown Tea. Plant materials are a relatively small cost, all considered. But even with the healthiest of plants, and best of conditions (and luck), it takes several years to start producing a large volume of tea. The time and energy spent preparing and caring for tea in the early years is by far the largest investment.
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?
Compared to what we are willing to pay for coffee, we are used to paying a fraction for tea, especially if it comes in tea bags in boxes on our grocery shelves. 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 box of grocery store tea.
Such are the costs, yields and cultural values to consider when paying for tea. 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 weighed my own tea often enough in recent years to estimate our total yield, though it keeps growing as new plots come into production. Nor have I recorded the number of hours I've spent plucking and processing, or the costs of hired help for maintaining and enlarging 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? It seems that a pot of local homegrown tea should be 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. At least it is enough to bring a lifetime of pleasure and a legacy crop of tea!
Tomorrow is the first day of fall - spring feels like just yesterday (i.e., above first flush). Now only a few plants are growing new leaves, and most are flowering, having reached their terminal growth and beginning to harden-off for winter. Now is NOT the time to prune, to avoid stimulating growth before the cold weather comes. I had meant to write this blog on a quarterly basis, but family health issues occupied most of my free time this year. So, I'll just list a few lessons learned and progress in the garden:
Anyone who grows tea will know, early spring is not the easiest time in the garden. The plants look their worst (see previous entry) and the fear of a late frost lingers. But have faith - the old leaves that look so dried and crispy will be replaced with new bright color within weeks. While tea is an evergreen plant, old leaves do fall off and are often found littering the ground under even healthy plants. That said, if your plant has lost all its leaves, don't completely give up hope. After a hard cold winter, sometimes a plant that seems nearly dead after freezing will begin to show new growth a few weeks after it's heartier neighbors. Obviously best not to harvest a struggling plant, but I've seen them recover within a couple years so that I'm glad that I hadn't pulled them out to replace.
Anyway, I'm musing late at night now, while waiting for my oolong to oxidize. Basically, I have just enough tea for me to pick and keep completely busy every weekend from March onwards. To celebrate finishing with the first flush harvest (just today), I planted six new small leaf tea seedlings. Looking forward to the years later when I'll probably have to add more pickers or create new hours in the day. Actually, the tea is growing just as my kids are also maturing, so now I have more time than ever to spend in the garden. Gardens and kids...mark the passage of time so well.The oldest, Alex, is 16 now - old enough to mow the field and help me prune. And the youngest, Julia, is 10 - happy to be able to earn a few dollars helping to mow with our little battery powered mower that fits just between the tea rows. It doesn't get much better than this.
We had quite a winter, lots of cold and ice, and now a delayed spring. So, it's a good time to clean up the garden and assess the damage. Looking on the bright side, we have learned a great deal from this winter's effects on various plants and placements. We had several episodes of really cold nights, including lows of 6 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit with several days in a row under 15 degrees. We also had wind and ice storms that damaged plants due to broken shade trees.
As a whole, this time of year before first flush is usually hard for me. The plants always look their worst, and this year is harder than most. On the bright side, I'm using this natural experiment to take note of which plants did better than others. Here are some of the outstanding findings:
Location is important - those plants with less protection from trees or other larger bushes were more like to show cold damage. Pictured here is one specimen of small leave var sinensis, a typically hardy variety that has been growing here in NC for decades. This plant is situated in the middle of the field and not protected by trees or other large plants. Others of the same variety with more protection did better. Also contributing to the damage may be the fact that this plant was active and growing late into the fall. Most plants typically 'harden off' late in the season, but the timing can be influenced by good weather and a later than usual nitrogen fertilization mid-summer. I expect a full recovery of this vigorous plant.
Variety matters, too - some simply did better than others withstanding the cold. The large leaf var sinensis with thicker leaves generally fared well. And, as we might have expected, our Sochi tea seedlings (one pictured here) did very well. This variety originates from plants grown in the late 19th century from seeds collected in China. The plants, selected to survive along the Black Sea in Russia, near the Caucaus Mountains, have a reputation for being cold hardy, and they certainly fared well for us this winter!
In this last example, both location and variety may have played a role - we planted a series of tender, large leafed Assam-type varieties along the edge of the garden lined with large cedar trees. Most showed the expected damage, thought not as bad as I would have imagined. But one appeared to be amazingly untouched by frost. With leaves nearly as large as the spread of my hand, this is one plant we'll be sure to propagate and test again in different locations.
With the first hard freeze of the season already past, I'd say that fall seems to have settled in for good...except that it is supposed to be in the mid-60s later this week so it goes (up and down).
I started seriously pruning our plants this past weekend, ruthlessly saying goodbye to many branches that were reaching too high or too low. It always makes me a little sad, though I know it is probably for the best. It will make it easier to pick in the spring. Whether or not this improves their long-term health is debatable, but they do seem to rebound vigorously. Last year we to what we thought was a reasonable height, but then missed two weeks picking in August, when they seemed to grow about 12+ inches.
October was a busy month, with several weekend tea tasting workshops to celebrate fall and finishing with my own tasting, sorting, and blending. It was lovely to share tea with first time visitors and old friends. Almost all the 2013 tea has already sold, but we still have several sample-size packs of most types. I've saved a little black and oolong tea so I can experiment making different chai blends to send to family this x-mass.
October was also time for Tea Expo East in Atlanta and the second official US League of Tea Growers meeting. After, I was lucky to host 3 special people - Nigel Walker, Jason McDonald, and Elyse Peterson - at Camellia Forest Tea Gardens. I was excited to share the diversity of tea plants in our garden, and was glad for a few tips from Nigel, who knows so much about how tea should be planted to maximize production. I have much to learn about tea farming. In our garden, we let our plants get a little bigger than a typical tea plantation (36 inches). This way we have more branches for clonal propagation. The plants also make lots of flowers, which is good for the bees and producing lots of seeds with random crosses in the garden.
OK - enough for this time. Because it is a season for giving and for enjoying our libraries, I was going to suggest one of my favorite new books, which is "Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties", by Kevin Gascoin, Francois Marchand, Jasmine Desharnais and Hugo Americi (Firefly Publishers, 2011). This is by far the most informative books I've read on tea, outside of a technical manual, and it is quite beautiful and well organized. For myself, I just bought "Tea and Chinese Culture" by Ling Wang (Longriver Press, 2005). I am looking forward to a really nice read on the history and culture of tea from where it all began.
Best wishes for the season
October is for oolong and osmanthus. In the fall, one of my favorite tasks is tasting, sorting and blending the summer oolongs. Along come mid-October, our osmanthus (Tea Olive) blooms with the most amazing fragrance. Thought those tiny flowers aren't easy to harvest, they are worth the work. I usually just mix them together and let them blend together for a few days before drying lightly in the oven (e.g., 170 degrees F for 20 to 30 minutes) and storing in an airtight container. Another option for simply scenting without mixing is to place a thin towel on the flowers, and layering dried oolong tea on top, then lightly covering for a few days before separating and lightly drying the tea.
Fall is also a good time to plant new tea, if it doesn't rain too much. We have hopes...stay tuned.
Most people have never tasted fresh tea, within days to weeks of harvest and processing. The flavors are light and never bitter. The aroma of the infusing tea leaves transports you to the garden in a way no store-bought tea ever can (especially if you brew your tea unfiltered directly in the cup). Lastly, although I've never sent out my teas for testing, it seems likely that fresh tea will have more nutrients and anti-oxidants. In a way, it is not unlike the difference between a garden-fresh tomato and a supermarket, mass produced fruit. Garden-fresh wins ever time.
It's creative and fun
In the garden, variation in tea naturally come from three sources: soil, climate and processing. Some of the best flavors come from the early growth in the cooler temperatures of spring ("first flush"). Like the weather, the inherent characteristics of "terroir" are largely out of your control. Minor differences in processing, however, can make a huge difference in aroma and flavor. If you like to experiment, like me, this is especially fun. I also like to make my own blends depending on what else is growing or blooming in the garden.
Evergreen leaves and pretty flowers
Mature tea plants can make a lovely hedge or foundation planting. For small-scale farming, tea is also well suited as an crop grown on the edge of fields and hills where tractors are impractical. Just like some ornamental Camellias, tea plants flower in the fall with small (1-2 inch) white blossoms with prominent yellow anthers. For farmers and bee keepers, these may provide a key source of pollen for fall foraging. In October, after all the picking is over, our gardens are literally humming with bees and other pollinators.
This year's summer tea harvest is over. Now we're getting ready to start planting again! Never a dull moment...
So - Part 1, Why grow your own tea?
Because you can
For a variety of historical and economical reasons, tea farming never took hold in the US. But that is beginning to change, not from the top-down, but from the backyard up! Once you grow your own, you'll never want to go back. Even if you don't produce a huge crop to supply all your own drinking needs, making your own tea provides a new appreciation for fine tea and the artisan tea crafters worldwide.
It's (relatively) easy
Camellia sinensis, the tea plant, grows wherever ornamental camellias grow, throughout much of the southeast, south, and west coast of the US. They do best in well-drained, acidic soil, and can flourish both in the sun and partial shade. Once the tea plants are established in 3-5 years, they require minimal upkeep. Depending on climate and especially when they are first starting, tea plants may be happier to have a drip-line. If you harvest a lot, then adding a nitrogen fertilizer is a good idea. Pruning may eventually be needed, unless you want to climb a ladder to pick (tea plants can grow into small trees). But otherwise, no major digging, tilling, pesticides, or other upkeep required.
As a West Coast transplant to the Southeast, July is the hardest month for me in the garden. This year has been different - not so hot, but very wet.
Too much rain can leach nitrogen from the ground, so new tea leaf production is not as abundant as you might expect. On the other hand, the weeds are plentiful and quite vigorous. This isn't a problem for the big tea plants, which mostly shade out the weeds. But for the one year old plants we just planted this spring, the weeds compete and can become a real challenge to establishing the new tea.
This year we tested out a new cover crop in between the rows of new tea plants - buckwheat - which can be mowed. It prevented erosion, which was a real risk in thunderstorms with heavy downpours. But it doesn't stop the weeds. So, on the "to do list": (1) weed, before it is too late and they start shading out the tea, and (2) fertilize to bump up the nitrogen. I use blood meal, which isn't fast but is organic.
It is certainly easier (and cooler) to stay inside and write about tea. But then I wouldn't have as much to write about in the long run. So, got to go...
Next time - "Why grow tea, Part 1."
Christine Parks, co-owner of Camellia Forest Tea Gardens, enjoys the creative process of taking tea from garden to cup.