Great Mississippi Tea Garden Planting Seeds for Future

In the heat of the summer sun, amidst storms and unexpected challenges, a small corner of a nearly 290 acre plot of land in Lincoln County, Mississippi is becoming the home of the Great Mississippi Tea Company.

WTN jason mcdCol. Jason McDonald is carving this tea farm out of land in Brookhaven, Miss. that once served as a 200 head cattle operation and a substantial timber stand. When Hurricane Katrina hit, McDonald lost 75% of his timber and he decided he wanted to try a crop that would not take so long to recover. A 2012 trip to South Carolina’s Charleston Tea Plantation put him on a path he had never imagined: tea.

Recognizing Mississippi’s acidic soil, high heat, humidity, and plentiful rain, he realized that Camellia sinensis could be his solution. McDonald and his partner Timothy Gipson spent five months researching the possibility, engaging the support and help of the Mississippi State University Extension Service office.

Rebecca Bates, coordinator of the Lincoln County Extension office, helped McDonald find a team from Mississippi State University who could provide valuable expertise related to soils, insects and disease. Tea consultant Nigel Melican, who has guided tea operations across the world, was brought in as an important mentor and collaborator. Land preparation began in November of 2012 and the next year involved land preparation, installing culverts, dealing with irrigation and drainage issues, removing roots, and waiting for plants to be propagated at CamToo Camellia Nursery in North Carolina. The MSU team named McDonald and Melican as collaborators on a grant they received from the USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant program to research tea cultivars.

WTN missMcDonald believes that there is space to reimagine how tea can be grown. He wants to rethink the possibilities of mechanization and growing in a country where labor costs and climate would make many think successful tea farming is impossible. McDonald is ready to prove them wrong.

The preparation has been overwhelming at times, fraught with moments that would make even the most ambitious pause. Freezing rain, sleet, snow, extreme rains (2 feet of rain fell in 3 weeks this spring), and high winds have led to some scares, but the first plants are holding their own. McDonald and his team are currently potting 30,000 plants in a tea garden he hopes will someday be 170 acres and certified organic. The goal is to begin harvesting in 2016, with a facility built that will allow all the processing to be done in Mississippi.

For more images, visit The Great Mississippi Tea Company’s Facebook page.

Image credits: Great Mississippi Tea Company