Like the groundhog of February predicting spring, the Qing Ming national holiday, celebrated this week in China, provides a folk forecast about harvest prospects.
This year’s forecast is favorable. World Tea News contacted a dozen growers in several different tea producing regions, curious about their direct observations on harvest conditions, prices, and the weather.
Weather patterns have been erratic as of late. In the past two years, torrential rains, odd highs and low temperatures, unexpected snow and rains that arrived early or late reduced quality and made harvesting more difficult.
Qing Ming is a family festival, a time to honor ancestors, which is why it called tomb sweeping day. Grave sites are gathering places for a brief ritual of burning incensed paper and tidying up the site. This date also marks the first day of the tea harvest. Teas processed prior to April 5 are known as Mingqian. Those that follow are considered the first harvest.
Growers in lower altitudes and with favorable weather began harvesting pre-Qing Ming teas on March 21. Today temperatures range from 65-75 (190C – 240C) degrees across much of the country.
Cindy Chen lives in Wuyishan on a family garden that hand-sorts and processes leaves. She said some cultivars ripened a bit late. “March 21 was our first day of tea processing the 2018 new harvest. It was a sunny day, today is sunny too, good for white tea. One tea we grow is Bai Mu Dan and one is Silver Needle, both are fresh and sweet, good pre-Qing Ming,” writes Chen.
Wuyi Origin also sells teas from Guangdong. Baiye and Chiye are the primary cultivars. Baiye is ready about a week before the end of March. The bushes on Lingtou are like no other bushes on Phoenix Mountain, she explains, “they are tall, but not so tall as to need a ladder, but a stool is really needed.”
Austin Hodge, founder at Seven Cups Fine Chinese Tea, in Tucson writes that “China’s tea fields have had a relatively mild start to the season, which is great news. Every tea grower holds their breath through the late winter, hoping the weather will cooperate long enough for them to harvest their first (and most profitable) leaves.”
Hodge expects the first spring teas to arrive shortly.
China avoided the late spring coldness of the past year so yield will increase, predicts Shengyuan Chen of Firsd Tea, a New Jersey based wholesaler of Chinese teas.
“White tea remains popular in China market so it’s making export even more difficult for customers who are looking for high grade white teas such as Silver Needle and high grade Bai Mu Dan,” said Chen. The price for fresh leaves has gone up by 30-50 percent compared with last year. The dollar-to-yuan exchange rate is expected to remain at the current level, she said. The price for pre-QingMing West Lake Longjing is higher than last year, “but it’s expected to drop drastically after QingMing and Guyu because of weather,” she said.
Cindy Chen said that wholesale prices this year are $120 per kilo for the Bai Mu Dan and $160 per kilo for the Silver Needle. In 2017 West Lake Longjing teas wholesaled between 1,800 and 2,500 yuan ($280 to $400). Retail prices can be steep, observes Huang Wei, a research associate at Shanghai Library. She explains that a combination of rising labor costs and limited quantities drive retail prices to $2.50 per gram (6,000 to 8,000 yuan or $1,275 for 500 grams).
“The 2018 Qing Ming is much better than before. The weather is caring for Chinese tea farmer, not too much rains, much sunniness for good harvest,” writes Lee Peng. He owns and operates Wuhan Jiarun Huiming Tea in Hubei, China.
Pluckers harvesting tea in India are paid $2 per day. Chinese tea workers in Zhejiang earn as much as $28 per day, accounting for about 50 percent of the processing cost.
News agency Xinhua traveled to Gaofeng Village and later to Jinhua Village in Pingli Country, in northwest China’s Shaanxi Province to witness the early plucking.
In the south reporters traveled to Guanshanhu District in Guiyang, in China’s southwest Guizhou Province last week, finding good weather and fields crowded with tea pluckers. See this slideshow of photos of growers from across China.