The Golden Feather Tea farm owned by Michael Fritts was reduced to ashes during the deadly initial hours of the largest of two wildfires still burning in the Sierra Nevada Foothills of Northern California.
Fritts, his wife Donna, and their three dogs are safe but his home, tea barn, and outbuildings are gone. Fritts has not been able to return to the site to assess the damage to the 800 organic tea bushes which he first planted in May 2011. Fritts initially began with a quarter acre and has since expanded to a half acre at 2,044 feet elevation (600 meters) in a forested area known as Yankee Hill. The farm is in the Spring Valley, west of Chico and 20 miles from Lake Oroville, about 80 miles north of Sacramento.
The Camp Fire started at about 6:30 a.m. Thursday a few miles north of the tea garden on Camp Creek Road and moved swiftly south and west. The garden is east of Paradise, Calif., a town where at least 56 died while attempting to escape the flames. Three fatalities were in Concow and dozens are still missing. It is the deadliest fire since 1933 and has consumed more structures than any fire in the state’s history. The fire had claimed 8,00 homes and 260 commercial buildings as of Nov. 20, burning an area of nearly 200 square miles (135,000 acres or 55,000 hectares). It is likely to burn until Nov. 30. More than 250,000 Northern California residents in Butte, Los Angeles, and Ventura counties were ordered to flee their homes with the 27,000 who lived in Paradise sheltering elsewhere. Fire officials say 95 percent of the city’s structures were lost.
A landscaping contractor with a degree in ornamental horticulture, Fritts produces a deep golden colored oolong that was awarded second place in The Tea of the U.S. (TOTUS) tasting competition in 2015. Fritts has experimented with many teas, including one he markets as Motherlode Black Gold.
“The plants grow organically in the no-till regenerative way. Old world leaf processing is done by hand using only solar-powered EGO equipment,” writes Fritts.
Fritts, a veteran, was a resident of Paradise for more than 40 years, working at Mendon’s Nursery before he considered tea cultivation. It was there owner Jerry Mendon introduced him to some tea plants that he had ordered.
“The plants flourished and provided a healthful drink. Even more so, the pleasant evergreens provided focus for my mind and peace for my soul. I know that Golden Feather Tea is my divine appointment,” said Fritts, who suffers from Lyme disease contracted in 2010.
David Hammer at Purple Cloud Tea House in Auburn, Calif., says that Fritts is “hands-on (literally weeding each plant by hand) from start to finish.”
“He cares for his plants with the best organic nutrients and natural water source. Visiting his tea farm, sitting in his tea barn amongst the trees, and talking with Mike about his tea has been a truly wonderful and memorable experience,” writes Hammer.
The Golden Feather farming experience has been a great service to not only the curious tea enthusiast but also to university scientists, says Hammer. The tea garden is considered a non-commercial tea farm but Golden Feather is in transition. Fritts is seeking permits and outside funding to plant significantly more bushes. In October he launched a GoFundMe campaign.
“We are seeking $500,000 to secure a piece of land, install infrastructure and expand planting of the very special varietal,” he explained in the GoFundMe website. “This unique cultivar is wild in character and believed to have arrived in the U.S. with the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony in 1869,” he said, describing a fascinating journey before it was rediscovered in 2010.
Experts in China and Japan have taken an interest in this apparently rare cultivar, he said.
Hammer said he sent a sample from Golden Feature to a friend and tea scholar, a professor at South China Agriculture University in Guangzhou, who said he “could taste the wild in the tea.” “I agree,” writes Hammer. “The terroir of Mike’s tea was present in his tea and complimented his processing techniques, resulting in a delicious cup, described as complex, juicy, spicy, and sweet with a wonderful lasting after-taste,” says Hammer.
“I hope Mike will receive the support he needs to continue his passion,” he adds. Purple Cloud is donating to Golden Feather 100 percent of profits from online sales storewide through Nov. 18, he said. Donors can select “no purchase necessary” option. Yi An at The Art of Tea (www.theartea.com) writes that it is “heart breaking for us to hear what Mike Fritts lost. We respect and appreciate all of Mike’s effort and contribution to tea culture here.” She also is donating proceeds from a downloadable Blessing Chant by Guqin artist Shi YunLong to aid the Fritts family.
Jason McDonald, a tea grower in Mississippi offered Fritts replacement seeds from a newly arrived shipment of biclonals.
Tealet owner Elyse Petersen first met Fritts in 2014 when she toured his garden.
“Growing tea and developing tea processing craft is a patience-testing investment of one’s life,” she said. “Now, more than ever, is a time to learn about local tea craft and the challenges and risks the producers experience so we, as tea businesses and tea lovers, can support the artisans and create a more sustainable future for tea growers in the United States,” she writes.
Monetary donations for victims of the fire can be made to the American Red Cross. Visit redcross.org, call 1-800-RED CROSS or text the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation.
CORRECTION: Golden Feather Tea is not for sale, nor in the past, on Tealet.com