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!
Christine Parks, owner and operator of Camellia Forest Tea Gardens, enjoys teaching about tea and the creative process of taking tea from garden to cup.