US Tea Growers to Hold First Meeting at World Tea Expo

Calling all US Tea Growers!

The founding meeting of the US League of Tea Growers is to be held at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 8, 2013 at the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas, NV (Room N254). We welcome to the meeting all US tea growers and wannabe tea growers, well-wishers, and educators – anyone with a tea farm, a backyard plot or a tea plant in a pot, or who shares a vision of Camellia tea being grown and made on North American soil.

Tea growing in the USA already has a long fascinating history, though mainly of failed ventures. It started in South Carolina in 1795, when French botanist Andre Michaux planted a few seeds of tea and of C. japonica, brought home from China by sailors; these thrived but the tea plants were neglected in favor of the showy japonica flowers.  Much later, around 1848, Dr. Julius Smith experimented with tea growing near Greenville, SC, and another physician Dr. Jones planted tea in McIntosh, GA, for a few years.  By 1858, the US government was sufficiently interested in the potential of American tea growing to commission the now infamous Robert Fortune to make another visit to China for more seed.  These were handed out to farmers in six Southern States but the venture foundered.  Interest was rekindled in 1880 when US Commissioner for Agriculture William G. le Duc, recruited John Jackson from India to plant tea on 200 acres of land in Summerville, SC.  Seed was imported from China, Japan and India plus some from surviving John Fortune plants; some tea was manufacture and well received, but the venture was abandoned due to Jackson’s ill health.

Tea growing in Summerville was revived in 1890 by chemist Dr. Charles Upham Shepard whose work was recognized by the USDA and who appointed him Special Agent for Tea Culture. Shepard’s farm was known as Pinehurst Tea Garden and it flourished, receiving substantial federal aid annually between 1900 and 1915.  During this time he increased planting to 125 acres with a peak production of 15,000 lbs of tea.  Most of the plucking was done by children for a small wage and free schooling.  In parallel with Dr. Shepard’s more technical approach, Major Roswell D Trimble set up the distinctly commercial American Tea Growing Company in 1901.  Under Colonel August C Tyler (Trimble’s retired superior officer) they bought 6,500 acres of rice land at Rantowles, mid-way between Savanna and Charleston, and planted out 600,000 tea bushes.  Meanwhile, ATG marketed Pinehurst’s tea crop, buying Shepard’s entire production in 1902, but on Tyler’s death in 1903 the venture collapsed.  The Pinehurst collection of tea plants grew wild until they were acquired by TJ Lipton in the early 1960’s and transferred to Wadmalaw Island, onto the then newly established Lipton Tea Research Station.  The collection may still be seen planted in its original blocks in Field #1 of the now commercial Charleston Tea Farm purchased by Bigelow Tea Company in 2003.

Over the past few months we – Jason McDonald and Nigel Melican – have become aware that a critical mass of backyard and commercial tea growers is now active in 13 states of the USA – and even some growing in Canada.

Jason is actively preparing land in Mississippi for tea planting in 2014 and as part of that activity has contacted several of these US tea growers and Nigel has been corresponding with and encouraging many US tea growers for the past decade.  As the continuing success of the World Tea Expo confirms, interest in high value teas is fast developing in North America, and the concept of a home produced tea is gaining ground.  To meet this challenge we feel that pioneers of US tea growing should be comparing and sharing their information, findings, and experiences, and that some form of association would assist with this coming together in a spirit of cooperative collaboration.  To this end we intend to launch the US League of Tea Growers.

As well as being the visible focus of tea growers in the USA, we have identified eighteen essential tasks and roles for a growers’ consortium.  We are hoping to take this discussion further by meeting with potential founding members of the US League of Tea Growers at World Tea Expo in Las Vegas on June 8th to discuss nuts and bolts of setting up the association.  Hope to see you there.

One particularly exciting activity is to promote the formation of a US based gene pool for Camellia sinensis with a view to testing and evaluating varieties or cultivars most suited to USA growing conditions and market requirements – this gene pool will supplement the plants brought into the country by the US government in the Nineteenth Century and commercialised at that time by Charles Shephard.   Jason has already persuaded the Mississippi State University to set up and study a living collection of widely diverse tea cultivars.

Key Roles for the US League of Tea Growers

  1. To be the visible focus of tea growers in the USA.
  2. To actively encourage the growing and production of high value specialty teas within the USA
  3. To promote and encourage knowledge about specialty tea and to protect the name tea as a Camellia sinensis derived beverage wherever possible.
  4. Act as a repository and archive for information (technical, scientific, practical and commercial) relevant to US tea growing.
  5. Bring together US tea growers on a basis of cooperative collaboration
  6. Encourage sharing of information, equipment and ideas between members
  7. Act as a forum for US tea growers and formally represent their views on the US Tea Council and the International Tea Committee
  8. To interact internationally with other tea growers and producers to the mutual benefit of all
  9. Encourage new entrants into tea growing in the USA via education, provision of training, dissemination of information
  10. Provision of practical assistance to new growers via workshops, access to cuttings, pooling of machinery
  11. Stimulate machinery and systems development by academia or commercial companies to enable high technology agronomy and harvesting.
  12. To produce best-method handbooks of proven practical advice on growing, harvesting and processing of tea in the USA
  13. Collect and maintain a gene pool representing all beverage Camellia material available in the USA
  14. Adding to the US held gene pool by accessing genetic material from other tea producer countries
  15. Exchanging genetic material with other gene pools
  16. Seek to understand the relationship between the Camellia sinensis genome and commercial requirements
  17. Test and evaluate the genetic material held to select varieties or cultivars most suitable for US growing conditions – to include season extension, pest and disease tolerance, drought tolerance, mechanical handling suitability, processability, cup quality and health benefits.
  18. Encourage academia and commercial outlets to take up and refine initial plant selections.

Tweet @USgrowntea for further information or contact Colonel Jason Alexander McDonald at coaster_25@hotmail.com or Nigel Melican at nigel@teacraft.com if you are interested in joining or helping found the US Tea Growers League – or if you would like to donate some seed or plant material to the tea gene pool.

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