Growers’ Insights: Tea production is gaining steam

Published in FSD Update

American growers are producing tea across the country.

“Tea is probably the most labor-intensive crop on the planet,” says Angela Macke, the founding director of Light of Day Organic Farm and Tea Shop, in Traverse City, Mich. “It’s difficult to germinate; it’s slow-growing, needing about three years for a bush to get knee high. And it takes about 70,000 hand-picked tea buds for a finished pound of white tea.”

But Macke sees a bright future for growing tea and is pursuing certification to become Michigan’s only Biodynamic farm, an organic farming method that creates an unbroken chain of accountability from the farm to the finished product, according to Demeter USA, the association that created Biodynamic certification.

Macke isn’t the only grower who grows labor-intensive organic tea. “Because tea is so labor-intensive, we harvest with machines, although weeding is done by hand,” says William Barclay Hall, who oversees the daily operations at Charleston Tea Plantation, on Wadmalaw Island, S.C., where tea thrives without any pesticides, fungicides or herbicides. A third-generation tea taster who received formal training in London, Hall explains that tea is affected by terroir, just like wines. “Each country where tea is grown has a particular taste profile, created by the characteristics of the soil, geography and climate. I aim to develop teas that are smooth and mellow.”

“Tea is a camellia,” Hall says. “All tea comes from the camellia sinensis plant.” Generally, white tea comes from the slightly fuzzy, new leaf buds that have a silvery appearance, green tea from fresh green leaves and black tea comes from leaves that have been dried and oxidized (fermented).

Weather effects

“It’s virtually indestructible,” says private grower, Donnie Barrett, of Fairhope, Ala. about his teas. “My tea plants have been stripped of leaves several times but come right back after a hurricane!” Barrett has been growing tea for 34 years and has more than 40,000 bushes.

Not all tea growers find the crop so hardy. “We have had issues with winter freezing and wet spring weather killing or stunting the plants,” says Richard Sakuma, a fourth-generation farmer with Sakuma Brothers, a family-operated farm in Washington’s Skagit Valley. Sakuma has offered white, green, oolong and black teas since 2007. Originally, he planted five acres of tea, but currently has one and a half acres left, which produced a little more than 200 pounds of finished tea this year. “I believe over fertilizing and late fall pruning may not have allowed the plants to go fully dormant, contributing to the loss,” he says.

Insects are also a problem in the Pacific Northwest. “I grow under organic practices, and there are a limited number of products available to control pests,” Sakuma says. In an attempt to reduce the crop loss, Sakuma recently invested in stronger, more vigorous varieties, sourced from tea growers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, who are involved in research and development.

“We’ll see an increase in new tea farms and small tea gardens,” predicts Sakuma, who met fellow growers and enthusiasts at the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas this past year, where the new U.S. League of Tea Growers was launched. IBISWorld, an independent market research firm, confirms Sakuma’s prediction, stating that American tea sales are expected to reach $18 billion in the next several years.

“Prior to the Tsunami in 2011, about 99% of commercially available basket-steamed green tea came from Japan. Tea drinkers feel a sense of hope when they realize it can be grown [in this country],” Macke says.