Roy Fong (co-founder of Imperial Tea Court) discussed the possibility of growing tea near San Francisco. He isn’t the first to do so – the idea dates back to a Gold-Rush-era agribusiness boom. With the sustainability movement revving up, the dollar fluctuating and food safety concerns and shipping costs on the rise, is the notion of American-grown tea finally ready to fly?
Tea sprouts in America
The way William Hall, partner in South Carolina’s Charleston Tea Plantation, tells it, tea plants were grown in South Carolina for decorative purposes as early as 1799. (After all, the sinensis or “Chinese” in Latin, variety is just one of many camellia plants.) A compelling course of events, involving commercial failures, and abandoned fields and research stations, eventually led to Charleston Tea Plantation, self-dubbed “America’s only tea garden.”
However, South Carolina isn’t the only state growing tea. Agricultural consultant John Vendeland said you could “very successfully” grow tea in most of the Southeast and West Coast, just like other camellias. World Tea News interviewed growers in Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and Alabama and found that many had origins not unlike Hall’s.
Vendeland got his start in tea in the 1980s while consulting on crop diversification for a big sugar company in Hawaii. The tea project didn’t take root, but now Vendeland has tea ventures in Oregon (with Rob Miller, owner of Mt. Jefferson Farms) and Washington (with Richard Sakuma, co-owner of Sakuma Brothers Farm). Decades after Vendeland left Hawaii, tea growth flourished there, following the publication of USDA horticulturalist Francis Zee’s research.
Likewise, Lipton’s tea research stations, which were set up in North America when the supply chain from China was threatened during the 1960s, later resulted directly in Charleston Tea Plantation and indirectly in Fairhope Tea Plantation in Alabama. Donnie Barrett, owner and processor of Fairhope, started his plantation with three tea plants he salvaged after Hurricane Frederick destroyed a research station.
Despite the dormant periods and even disasters in American tea’s history, sources are optimistic about its future potential for two reasons: value and location.
When Hall bought a research station from Lipton to form Charleston Tea Plantation in 1987, he wondered why no one had tried to automate harvesting and processing as a way of reducing labor costs and prices. Bigelow Tea bought the company in 2003, and Hall continues to machine-harvest and process there.
He said, “I don’t believe hand production would be possible. You’d have to pay minimum wage unless you wanted to charge $1,000 per pound.” However, specialty trends prize value over price, and some producers are following suit.
Vendeland said with commodity tea, economies of scale don’t pay off until 400 to 500 acres, but that value-added differentiation can make tea competitive, especially in places like Hawaii, where soil and climatic conditions are ideal but labor costs are enormous.
She said, “There’s a shift in the buying potential of Baby Boomers. People don’t even blink an eye at paying $4.50 to $5.50 for a cup of coffee. There is an indulgent, treat-yourself mindset,” that facilitates hand-produced, $500 per pound tea.
Rarity also increases value. While rarity is inherent in American tea at present, some aficionados are particularly attracted to limited quantities, which are common for immature tea plants and part-time tea farmers, and less common tea types, such as Hawaii’s matcha or Fairhope’s “fresh” (unprocessed) tea.
Terroir is, in large part, a function of location, but its singularity can add immense value to American teas. Whereas Charleston tea is bright and flavorful, Skagit Valley, Wash., tea is particularly sweet. Halpenny said Hawaii tea has “a light, citrus note, and a sweet, roasted smell almost like cookies.”
Location influences logistical factors – taxes, shipping, middlemen – when buying tea, but sources said location’s influence on sustainability, agritourism and local connections was also important.
Location and sustainability are intertwined. Organic tea production in America is bolstered by a lack of indigenous pests, and the locavore trend decreases carbon impact. Fong said he could count on locavorism if he started growing tea in the Bay Area, where the Slow Food Nation conference was held in 2008, and Barrett said the preference toward local products is strong in Alabama.
However, because of agritourism, local tea isn’t just for locals. Fairhope and Charleston Tea Plantations earn income from thousands of tourists a year. Sakuma and Fong expressed interest in setting up tours akin to the Pacific Northwest’s winery tours, and Halpenny said that tourism to Hawaii could be a major point of contact for new clients.
Local production also means local connections, which have a multitude of perks. Fong said the strong tea knowledge base in San Francisco could jump-start local tea growth. Sakuma added that buying directly lets customers get to know their producers and reduces concerns about health and labor issues.
Overcoming tea’s steep learning curve was a common goal amongst sources. Beyond that, many also had the desire to share what they had accomplished. Halpenny has started a satellite program for providing clonal material to other farmers, processing their harvests and splitting the profits. Vendeland and Sakuma hope to spread tea production to multiple farms in Skagit Valley in order to provide a sustainable, profitable crop for farmers.
Barrett said, “I’ve scratched the surface here. I’d like to be a good role model, show others how to do it.”