Can tea become an alternative crop in Florida for its mainstay citrus crops?
That’s the question that business owners and university researchers across Florida are pursuing—and seeing the possibilities.
For generations, oranges and grapefruit have been the pride of the Sunshine State. But citrus greening—along with damage from hurricanes and other storms—has hit the industry hard for over a decade. New crops are needed. There’s a strong interest in olive oils. But tea? That’s really novel.
The potential of tea as a Florida crop isn’t a quick fix. The path ahead will demand more than a pound of patience and years of research. But Kelly Hackman, owner of The White Heron Tea & Gifts in Pasco County’s New Port Richey, is interested in growing tea herself. “The U.S. is 1,000 years behind in growing tea,” she told the Business Observer in Sarasota, Fla. “Other places have been growing it for over a dozen generations.” Now she’s on a mission to learn everything she can about tea from reading about the plant’s history, visiting people in other parts of the U.S. who are growing it and talking with researchers studying it. Hackman also hopes to one day create an experience-based tourism business around tea.
A May 1 tea field day hosted by University of Florida researchers and held in Citra, south of Gainesville, gave roughly 50 people including Hackman the chance to hear the latest on Florida tea research. Brantlee Richter, assistant professor of plant pathology at UF, and Bala “Saba” Rathinasabapathi, a professor in horticultural sciences, poured out their tea crop findings. This highlighted varieties growing well in tests and provided a realistic assessment of the challenges of growing tea in Florida.
When she got back to her desk, Richter already had an email asking her where to get tea plants. “A lot of people are just anxious to get started with plants in the ground, and I couldn’t be happier with that,” she says. “The more people we get out there experimenting and talking about experimenting, the faster the knowledge will spread.”
In the field
A graduate student at UF prompted the research into tea, Richter says. James Orrock, who is studying plant pathology, is a fourth-generation citrus grower and was intrigued by the prospect of tea in Florida. “We’re desperate for a solution or any other crops that can be grown here,” he says.
The thinking, Richter says, is that tea might be part of a large patchwork of plants that could replace, in part, citrus. Orrock agrees.
“While we don’t expect tea to replace citrus or even come close to replacing citrus, I think it will be grown here and help to diversify the farms,” he said.
In 2011 Orrock recalls planting a few tea plants near Waverly, Fla. They died.
“A year later and I was back in the tea game with 400 lovely plants from Donnie Barrett. Those plants are still with me and are my ‘practice’ plants where I can test ideas on them, and be a botanist,” he writes. Orrock joined the U.S. League of Tea Growers and eventually planted approximately 6,000 tea plants on 10 acres, harvesting micro lots for sale.
Because there hasn’t been a market analysis performed yet for U.S. tea production, Richter says there’s a chicken-and-egg problem with funding. “Everyone wants to see whether it will make enough money before providing funding,” she says. But first, the plants must be tested. “There’s no one producing tea plants in the U.S. at the scale someone needed for farmers to put them in the ground,” she says.
UF researchers have received two grants for testing — one for $200,000 and one for $60,000. Now UF is testing eight varieties of tea plants that have been in the ground for two years. The plants are in full Florida sun at the Citra experiment station, and Richter says it’s “the harshest test we could put them to.” Two of the varieties are doing very well.
But there’s more research to be done. Richter, in a presentation last year at a Florida Organic Growers meeting, offered another egg metaphor. Says Richter: “In a session on new crops, I started out with a graphic on the emergence of a bird from egg to nestling to fledgling to adult bird. Everything else at this session is in the fledgling state. We’re at egg.”
On a Mission
Hackman is diving deep into learning how she could start a New Port Richey tea plantation. “It became a mission of mine to figure out how I could do this.”
Recently she traveled to Mississippi to attend a U.S. League of Tea Growers conference. During the conference, she had the chance to tour The Great Mississippi Tea Co. in Brookhaven, Miss. and learn more from one farmer, Jason McDonald, about how he’s built a U.S. tea farm operation.
Jenny Franklin, owner of High Springs Orchard in Alachua County, shares Hackman’s interest in growing tea. Franklin has 10 acres of fruit trees at her orchard and attended the UF tea field day. She’s ready to tackle the next steps of her tea journey: talk to nurseries, get plants and start growing.
She thinks scores of Florida growers aren’t lining up to grow tea because of a key issue—patience. “A lot of people can’t sit on a product for five or six years waiting for a return on investment,” she says. “If you’re just looking for a way to make money quick on a crop, it’s not going to be tea at all.” She thinks it could be worth the wait and bring a long-term return.
In Florida, tea won’t become an overnight crop sensation. It won’t even be a viable crop by 2020, according to Richter. “It’s going to be a gradual process of expansion,” she says. “It’s going to take a few years. It really depends a lot on the growers and who is ready to take a risk.”
That risk may lay at the feet of people like Hackman, who is fired up about the future. “Challenge accepted by the state of Florida,” she says. “We’re going to produce some tea.”