Over the last quarter century, tea gardens have been sprouting up across North America and very recent history has seen tea-farming spread like brushfire. The biggest boons for modern American tea planters are:

  • A modern agricultural revival. People are turning back to the land and are hungry for locally grown foods
  • A rising demand for specialty and origin specific teas. As tea drinkers become more aware of the origins of tea and the impacts of terroir on taste, they seek out teas that have a story and that are unique to their environments.
  • Pioneers: As tea planters have success growing Camellia sinensis, the proof of possibility encourages more people to try.

  • The Pacific Northwest has long been a mecca for tea and coffee innovation so it makes sense that an American Tea Terroir would start there.
    Recent History of Tea Farming in North America’s Pacific Northwest:
    1989: John Vendeland, an agriculture and business development specialist, and Steve Smith, founder of Stash, Tazo and most recently Smith Teamakers, worked with Rob Miller at his farm, Minto Island Growers, in Salem, Oregon to develop a tea cultivar that was suitable to the cold, wet climate of the Pacific Northwest. Starting with plants from Charleston, planting them in Oregon and selecting for the healthiest ones over time, their intention was to breed a tea type of tea that flourishes in Washington and Oregon.
    1997: The plants from Minto Island Growers began been used successfully by Sakuma Brothers, in Washington State’s Skagit Valley. Along with their legendary berries, Sakuma Brothers are growing and producing green, white and oolong teas with all of the fruity, buttery and vegetal notes that you would expect from these tea types, but with a lighter, more subtle flavor than those grown in China, Japan or Taiwan. When you taste a cup of Sakuma Brothers’ tea, there is a fresh quality and the knowledge that it was grown locally that comes through the cup and makes it even more enjoyable.
    1997- 2004: Major strides were made for Hawai’ian grown specialty tea thanks in part to USDA funding, fueled by the hope that tea could replace Hawai’i’s dwindling sugar industry. In 1998, horticulturalist Francis Zee led an initiative that brought tea plant material from Taiwan and Japan to Hawai’i and conducted studies to determine which cultivars were the most adaptable to the volcanic soils and tropical climate there. In 2004, cultivation and processing techniques were modified to local conditions and Taiwanese tea making machinery was imported as well. Meanwhile, the Hawai’i Tea Society was developed in 2002 and has been supporting small-scale tea farming and raising quality. Today, Hawai’i has a burgeoning industry for island grown specialty teas, picked and processed by hand and grown without chemicals. Hawai’i is as close to an American tea terroir that currently exists. Aficionados around the world have been delighted with the tea’s unique floral and fruity quality.

    Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting excerpts from an article I recently wrote for Fresh Cup magazine on tea farming in America.
    This post is on the challenges we face in North America and why tea is not commercially grown in the US on a significant scale….
    Despite some commercial successes**, tea production has never taken off as an industry outside of Hawaii; the US has never become a true tea origin with high quality teas or a unique style of its own. The greatest barriers to the United States developing as a legitimate tea origin are:

  • Climate: The tea plant (Camellia sinensis) thrives in tropical areas, like the cloud forests of its native China, with regular rainfall and well-drained, acidic soils.
  • High labor costs: Tea plucking and processing takes great skill and time.
  • A lack of industry know-how: For perspective, tea has been cultivated in China and Japan for millennia with cultivation techniques being passed down through generations and plants adapting to local environments.
  • Lack of appropriate Cultivars: Camellia sinensis is not native to the US and has not had time to evolve a strain that thrives in American environments.

  • Read more next week about how this is changing in current times and what modern American tea farmers are doing to build a tea terroir.
    **The first commercial tea growing operation in the US was in South Carolina’s Lowcountry in 1888, when Dr. Charles Shepard, in conjunction with the US government, founded the Pinehurst Tea Plantation with tea seeds from China, Japan and India. Pinehurst wasn’t able to continue its reputation for producing fine teas after Shepherd’s death, but its tea plants were transplanted to what is now known as the Charleston Tea Plantation, where tea has been growing commercially since 1987.
    Photo: Courtesy-teahawaii.com- Tea Hawaii Company Headquarters

    In London yesterday, the Ethical Tea Partnership and the Ethical Trading Initiative hosted Team Up, a major tea industry conference focusing on key social and environmental issues affecting the industry and the innovative projects which are pioneering new ways to tackle them based around collaborative action.
    One is an award-winning climate change project which has already helped more than 100,000 Kenyan smallholder farmers to increase their resilience to climate change and secure their future livelihoods. It is currently being adapted for use in other countries.
    Sarah Roberts, director of ETP, said,

    Tea is the world’s favourite beverage, after water, and it provides a livelihood for millions of people around the globe. [The climate change project] shows that the industry is committed to helping smallholder farmers and workers earn a decent wage and farm better…

    This project, a cooperation between ETP and GIZ (a German Development Agency), ran from 2010- 2013 and helped more than 100,000 Kenyan smallholder farmers to increase their resilience to climate change and secure their future livelihoods. They worked in partnership with the country’s largest tea smallholder cooperative the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA), and Marks & Spencer.
    Outcomes of hte project include:

  • More than 3,500,000 trees have been planted on farms or are growing in nurseries, to provide shade for tea bushes, help the soil fix nitrogen and provide fodder for livestock
  • More than 600,000 drought and frost resistant tea clones have been planted or are being grown in nurseries
  • More than 25,000 energy efficiency stoves have been installed, reducing the need to cut down trees for firewood
  • More than 2,500 farmers installed rainwater harvesting and drip irrigation systems

  • An overview of the project can be found here: Climate change case study – FINAL 09 06 14
    image: Farmers learn how to adapt to climate change impacts and to diversify their income away from tea.

    As I listen to birds chirping outside my window and watch the dogwoods, lilacs and daffodils bloom and the world grow greener each day, I think of the fresh tea sprouting in the hills of Darjeeling, the mountains of China and the plains of southern Japan this month. Spring, or first flush, teas are some of the best of the season, characterized by high aromatics, delicate leaves and buds and ephemeral flavor. They are typically best enjoyed fresh.
    In Darjeeling, India this year, drought brought yields down a projected 30% and delayed harvest. Devastating as this is to local tea growers, there are still some fine Darjeeling teas to be enjoyed. Just be prepared to pay a bit more for them this year. In China, the Qingming festival, 15 days after the spring equinox each year, marks the end of the year’s first harvest. IN Japan, Shincha is the years first tea crop and if you are lucky enough to drink that which has been plucked 88 days after the Japanese Spring equinox, then legend says you will enjoy a year of good luck and health!
    Fresh crop is already available at a few US online tea vendors like Tea Trekker, Mariage Freres and Yuuki-Cha. Also, check these sites for teas shipped direct from origin: Thunderbolt Tea and Darjeeling Tea Boutique.

    Seven tea companies are responsible for 90% of the world tea market. While bringing health to many tea lovers around the world, the tea industry is often accused of being socially and environmentally harmful. For the first time ever, the world’s largest tea companies (the likes of Unilever, Tata Global Beverages, James Finlay and Twinings) have come together to work together to change this reality. With the support of Ethical Tea Partnership, Fairtrade International, IDH – the Sustainable Trade Initiative and Rainforest Alliance, among others, they launched a new partnership on February 13th to make tea a hero crop by the year 2030.
    They are calling for a cross-sector collaboration to improve livelihoods, respond to climate change, and engage consumers in the roadmap to develop a sustainable tea industry for 2030.
    This initiative is the result of a year’s research and collaboration between organisations from all parts of the sector, facilitated and managed by Forum for the Future. You can read the report, The Future of Tea, A Hero Crop for 2030, here: Final Report – Tea 2030