Originally run in the Gulf Coast Camellia Society “Camellian”
About every Southerner will recognize a Camellia japonica at 40 paces, and in a pinch a fair number of other ornamental Camellia species – but too few have ever seen a bush of Camellia sinensis. Well, all that’s about to change as Jason McDonald, a Brookhaven, MS, farmer prepares to plant out a single field of 60,000 bushes of genuine honest-to-goodness real old-fashioned tea (Camellia sinensis (L.) O.Kuntze). There are one or two pocket handkerchief sized patches of tea growing in the USA but commercial success requires a minimum of 10 to 20 acres and a high-tech, low-labor approach to tea husbandry and harvesting. Jason’s FiLoLi Tea Farm is accepting the challenge of sifting through 3,000 years of tea growing myth and lore, extracting the nuggets of practical expertise, and grafting them on to modern automation to make it work. And, if anyone can do that, my money has to be on the eclectic and dynamic Colonel Jason Alexander McDonald.
Tea growing in the USA already has a long fascinating history, though mainly of failed ventures. It started in South Carolina in 1795 when French botanist Andre Michaux planted a few seeds of tea and of C. japonica, brought home from China by sailors; these thrived but the tea plants were neglected in favor of the showy japonica flowers. Much later, around 1848, Dr. Julius Smith experimented with tea growing near Greenville, SC, and another physician Dr. Jones planted tea in McIntosh , GA, for a few years. By 1858 the US government was sufficiently interested in the potential of American tea growing to commission the now infamous Robert Fortune to return to China for more seed. These were handed out to farmers in six Southern States but the venture foundered. Interest was rekindled in 1880 when US Commissioner for Agriculture William G. le Duc, recruited John Jackson from India to plant tea on 200 acres of land in Summerville, SC. Seed was imported from China, Japan and India plus some from surviving John Fortune plants; some tea was manufacture and well received, but the venture was abandoned due to Jackson’s ill health.
Tea growing in Summerville was revived in 1890 by chemist Dr. Charles Upham Shepard whose work was recognized by the USDA and who appointed him Special Agent for Tea Culture. Shepard’s farm was known as Pinehurst Tea Garden and it flourished, receiving substantial federal aid annually between 1900 and 1915. During this time he increased planting to 125 acres with a peak production of 15,000 lbs of tea. Most of the plucking was done by children for a small wage and free schooling. In parallel with Dr. Shepard’s more technical approach, Major Roswell D Trimble set up the distinctly commercial American Tea Growing Company in 1901. Under Colonel August C Tyler (Trimble’s retired superior officer) they bought 6,500 acres of rice land at Rantowles, mid way between Savanna and Charleston, and planted out 600,000 tea bushes. Meanwhile ATG marketed Pinehurst’s tea crop, buying Shepard’s entire production in 1902, but on Tyler’s death in 1903 the venture collapsed. The Pinehurst collection of tea plants grew wild until they were acquired by TJ Lipton in the early 1960’s and transferred to Wadmalaw Island, onto the then newly established Lipton Tea Research Station. The collection may still be seen planted in its original blocks in Field #1 of the now commercial Charleston Tea Plantation purchased by Bigelow Tea Company in 2003.
Mississippi, it turns out, has just about ideal conditions for tea growing, and despite the many false starts made since 1795 Jason is ready to challenge the myth that a high cost economy cannot make a success of tea growing. However, Jason will not be entirely on his own in this venture. He has recently appointed international tea consultant Nigel Melican of Teacraft Technical Services to supply agricultural advice and support. Nigel has more than 30 years’ practical experience in tea nurseries, fields and factories around the world – he has been known to boast, over a sundowner on a tea plantation veranda, that he has manufactured tea on six of the seven continents; certainly, at the last count, in 26 different tea growing countries.
Left to its own devices Camellia sinensis var.sinensis (Chinese tea) will grow into a 15 foot tree and its larger cousin Camellia sinensis var. assamica (Indian tea) can top 25 feet. Naturally this creates a difficulty when harvesting the valuable green leaves– the ‘two leaf and a bud’ tips that give the very best quality tea. It’s no secret that in the early 19th Century the British East India Company were bartering opium for Chinese tea, and when the Chinese banned further supply of tea the British stole tea seed from China to set up tea estates in North East India. But, while they had the seed they lacked the Chinese tea growing expertise, so it was touch and go for a while. This ignorance was not entirely a bad thing however, and necessity soon proved the mother of invention. The Chinese had accepted the problem of harvesting leaf from tall tea trees, after all they had done it that way for thousands of years. The inventive British planters who created the Assam tea industry in the 1830s, untroubled by tradition, pruned the trees down to waist high bushes and planted them densely. This was to be a master stroke as it not only revolutionized the ergonomics of leaf collection but also encouraged vigorous juvenile leaf growth – the crop – and, in total opposition to what the Camellia society folk would want, discouraged flowering and seed production at the expense of leaf. Modern tea cultivars have been selected to resist flowering though the older seed derived bushes will lapse into flowering mode if kept under control. Young tea garden superintendents used to get their bums kicked if the manager ever saw a flower – symptomatic of under fertilizing (tea loves nitrogen), insufficient water, and being too lenient on the pruning.
FiLoLi Tea Farm’s initial 60,000 bushes will be transplanted into the field in the spring of 2014. The land is already cleared and drained and irrigation is being put in place. Tea plants are generally raised from cuttings and these need six months to root and establish themselves in a greenhouse nursery, then another six months under shade to strengthen and harden off. We shall be machine planting – this is not often done in the tea world, where manual labor is cheap; the 60,000 FiLoLi plants will fill about 12 acres of land, planted in long hedges to facilitate harvesting. The first three years in the field are given over to training the bush into a format that will maximize leaf growth and support a strong harvest table; training is applied as a series of sequential prunes. We shall use specially designed imported tea machines running on metal tracks alongside the hedges to apply the training cuts, and from the fourth year when a commercial yield can be harvested, the same machines will pluck green leaf from the bushes on a 21 day rotation. Organic fertilizer will be supplied to the plants as required, through the irrigation system. By using the very best machinery and by good management of the automated husbandry, FiLoLi Tea Farm will attain high yields of tip top quality specialty teas at a reasonable cost of production. This is an approach to tea growing that has not yet been seen in the USA.