Is tea the South’s next lucrative crop? These family farms have mastered the centuries-old art – Clarion Ledger

Posted: October 8, 2021 at 1:51 am

In central Mississippi, outside the town of Brookhaven, a field is lined with long rows of precisely squared-off shrubs, which look more like misplaced landscaping than a crop. These are tea plants, or Camellia sinensis, a cousin of the camellias that blossoms in yards across the South.

Jason McDonald knew nothing about tea, or even much about farming, when he was casting about for a crop to plant on this land he inherited from his grandfather. After a visit to the Charleston Tea Plantation, for many years one of Americas only commercial tea farms, McDonald decided to give it a try. (In 2020, plantation was dropped and the name was changed to the Charleston Tea Garden.) With his husbandTimothy Gipson, in 2012 he founded the Great Mississippi Tea Company.

The first couple of years, we were the village idiots, McDonald said. Now that were making money, people are asking, Whats going on here?

A single acre of Camellia sinensis in one yearcan producea ton of finishedtea. McDonald and Gipson currently farm 1.25 acres of tea plants. Another 7 acres will soon be ready to harvest. But growing Camellia sinensis only gets you halfway to a cup of tea. The pair had to master the process withering, rolling, baking and drying that turns the leaves into black, green, yellow and oolong teas.

Kyle Stewart sells Great Mississippis teas at his shop The Cultured Cup in Dallas, Texas. He said the flavor of sweet potatoes with a hint of honey makes the Great Mississippis Black Magnolia tea stand out. He ranks McDonald and Gipsons teas as equal to the best from Asia.

Tea was first planted in the United States at the start of the 19th century by French botanist Andr Michaux outside Charleston, South Carolina. Since then, America has never had more than a handful of commercial tea farms. In the last decade, however, the number of farms has steadily grown, climbing for the first time into the double digits. And most of those tea farms are in the South, like Fleur de Lis Tea in Louisiana, Hyatt Tea Co. in Alabama, Pearl River Tea Companyin Mississippi and Table Rock Tea Company in South Carolina.

I would say the South and the Pacific Northwest are better suited for tea growth. They like a humid climate and consistent rainfall, said Guihong Bi, a professor in Mississippi State Universitys Department of Plant and Soil Sciences.

The plant also needs acidic soil, good drainage and temperatures between 65 and 85 degrees, although it can withstand heat above 100 degrees, Bi said.

For the first few years, tea plants are delicate. They need irrigation, which can be costly. Eventually, though, their roots will reach six feet into the ground.

The tea plants cannot be harvested until they are about five years old. Great Mississippi estimates that over those five years, when the tea plants generated no income, it spent $100,000 per acre, with the biggest cost being the plants. Once established, though, the plants can produce tea for more than a century.

Theres a big upfront cost, but if you can survive that its basically a money printing machine, Gipson said.

Great Mississippi will harvest tea from April to October. When new shoots rise about the table-flat shrubs, they are plucked. Green tea uses the bud and the first two leaves. Most black tea uses the same, although Great Mississippi includes the third leaf in its black tea. An oolong tea might use the bud and up to the sixth leaf.

After being plucked, the tea is withered, or spread out so the leaves lose moisture and become pliable. Black and oolong teas are rolled, rupturing the cell walls and creating oxidation that darkens the leaves. Shaqing (literally killing the green) stops oxidation through steaming, baking, sun drying or tossing the leaves in a wok.

Each step changes the flavors of the finished tea. Mastering that process is an art.

In the 1960s, Lipton created experimental tea farms in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and onWadmalaw Island in South Carolina. Lipton, however, abandoned the idea of growing U.S. tea in the late 1980s, and the company sold the Wadmalaw Island farm to Mack Fleming, the farms final manager, and Bill Hall, a third-generation tea taster from the U.K. The pair launched the Charleston Tea Plantation with big plans for their American Classic brand.

After more than three decades growing tea, Hall looked skeptically at the new farms that have launched in recent years.

Im all behind these people that are trying, but theres so much involved, he said. So I dont see it taking off.

For a time, the American Classics brand was sold on the shelves of Walmart and Whole Foods. Hall and Flemming, who died in 2018, even exported tea to Japan. By 2010, though, the farm had given up on grocery stores.

Supermarket chains are notorious for beating you down in price, Hall said.

The farm, owned since 2003 by Bigelowwith Hall as a partner, now sells its tea online, to gift shops and directly to its six million annual visitors.

No one today believes that American tea can compete with China, Kenya, India or Sri Lanka at making the low-priced, commodity produce that fills tea bags. But at this moment, more and more customers are willing to pay a premium for higher quality food.

It seems that a number of major shifts in consumer preferences have all kind of lined up in our favor. The local food movement, the Slow Food movement, the clean food movement, said Thomas Steinwinder of Longleaf Tea Company. In 2018 he and his wife, Hillary, planted 1,200 tea plants on land outside of Laurel, Mississippi that has been in her family for five generations.

Steinwinder also sees a potential for agrotourism, particularly since Laurel has become a popular destination thanks to the locally shot HGTV home renovation series Home Town.

More Americans are also drinking tea, drawn by the drinks perceived health benefits and its range of flavors. From 1990 to 2019,the American tea market has grown from $1.84 billion to $12.67 billion,according to an estimate from the Tea Association of the U.S.A.

Theres a lot of young people that are interested in tea, and it goes all the way from the blue-haired old ladies to the blue-haired young, said Donald van de Werken of Pearl River Tea Company in Poplarville, Mississippi.

Van de Werken and his husband, Jeffrey Brown, started growing blueberries in 2004. They wanted a second crop and by chance learned that Lipton once had an experimental tea farm nearby. Now, they produce 1,500 pounds of tea a year, selling it mainly at markets like the Crescent City Farmers Market in New Orleans.

Tea farming also appeals to people who want to leave a mark on the South. Steve Lorch founded Table Rock Tea Companywith his wife, Jennifer, on land in South Carolina they bought in 2008. Lorch has been encouraging nearby farmers and neighbors to also grow tea, which he will buy and process.

Our goal here is to make this area like Napa Valley is for wine, he said. We would like this to be known as tea country.

Planting a crop that can flourish for a century has made Lorch think about the future.

I just turned 50, but were already looking at whos going to buy the farm. Who are we going to hand this off to? Lorch said.

Lorch has studied the history of tea farming in the South. He knows how many farms failed and were abandoned. He wants this chapter of Southern tea farming to have a different ending.

News tips? Story ideas? Questions? Call reporter Todd Price at 504-421-1542 or email him at Sign up for The American South newsletter.Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Published 12:46 pm UTC Oct. 7, 2021 Updated 12:46 pm UTC Oct. 7, 2021

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Is tea the South's next lucrative crop? These family farms have mastered the centuries-old art - Clarion Ledger

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