The New Camellia on the Block

Camellia sinensis flowerby Nigel Melican

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.

filolipondFiLoLi 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 Machine Trimmingspecially 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.



Specialty Crop Block Grant Programs

Baby Plantsby Naomi Rosen

Bear with us here.  As I like to tell Jason McDonald (FiLoLi Tea Farms) every chance I get…”I’m a city girl”.  What I mean to say is I know absolutely nothing about growing crops.  Which makes me perfect for explaining what a Specialty Crop Block Grant is and why you should look into it.

What is the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBGP)?

Per the USDA website: “The purpose of the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBGP) is to solely enhance the competitiveness of specialty crops. Specialty crops are defined as “fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture, and nursery crops (including floriculture).”  Tea falls into this category.  These monies can be used to determine proper cultivars for your region, crop feasability, long term financial impacts for the region, etc.  This kind of information is a vital resource to the Ag community in your individual states and can impact the economic and physical health of your region.  

As a side note, tea falls into the pre-approved specialty crop list because of the 1899 USDA Report Number 61 “Tea Culture: the Experiment in South Carolina” by Dr. Charles Upham Shepard, Special Agent in Charge Tea Culture Investigations. It was submitted to Hon. James Wilson, Secretary of Agriculture and has been considered a specialty crop for over 100 years.  A free copy of Tea Culture can be downloaded, or you can find it in a local library as well.

How do I apply? 

The first thing you need to do is contact whomever is responsible for Agriculture in your state.  You can find the contact information here.  As mentioned in previous posts, networking and getting to know your Ag representatives in your area is vital and wise!  It is mentioned on the USDA site that funding is normally awarded to “state and local governments or nonprofits organizations, which then use the money to operate assistance programs locally”.  That’s not to say that you can’t apply as an individual but I would encourage you to work with your local Ag representatives and universities to increase your chances of becoming a priority.  There are two really HUGE reasons for not going it alone:

  1. Most states have elected commissioners of agriculture who administer the cash.  Politicians aren’t huge fans of doling out large quantities of money on Ag concepts or trials.  When presented as university research, it’s a safer gamble.
  2. In most states, the competition for these kinds of grants is huge.  Aligning yourself with a university just makes sense.  They will have the unending expertise and resources to see the project through to completion.

Once you have been in contact with your state representative, they can walk you through the application process.  Jason McDonald, or FiLoLi Tea Farm, having partnered with Mississippi State University, was recently awarded one of these grants.  Thank you to Jason, Dr. Bi and Dr. Nagel for sharing the submitted proposal: Bi_MDAC Proposal-2013.

We would encourage you to share your experiences with us if you have already applied for a SCBGP.  We would encourage you to share questions/concerns you have about this program.  We would encourage you to look over the proposal we provided and use the information to put together your own successful tea growing program.  Alright…that’s enough encouraging…

Gardeners Networking: Just Do It!

100+ years worth of farming experience in the cab of that tractor!

100+ years worth of farming experience in the cab of that tractor!

By Jason McDonald, Owner of FiLoLi Tea Farm

Universities are a GREAT way to begin your research, but don’t forget there are people around you that are just as interested (and sometimes more interested) as universities about the research of botany, horticulture, and Camellia Sinensis. I have met some backyard gardeners that are as equipped, or better equipped than any university could ever be for their backyard hobby. They can also tell you how to “research” Camellia Sinensis on a budget, which most of us are on.

Mississippi State has a Master Gardener Program, as do most states.  There is also a link on to their Master Gardener Program in the “about” section that links you to all local Master Gardener programs. states, “The Master Gardener Volunteer program is a great way to gain horticultural expertise at a low cost, meet other avid gardeners, share gardening experiences, get connected to the community, and belong to a well-respected and educational organization.”

There are also various groups in most states that make for GREAT ways to meet other gardeners and horticulturalists:

My good friend, Buddy Lee, developer of Encore Azaleas, and a lifetime tea enthusiast, actually came into my life at a Mississippi Master Gardener State Conference here in Brookhaven, MS. If I had not taken the steps to be a part of a group of gardeners, I would have never found my very good friend. We were perfect strangers and became friends (as tea usually does join people) at the conference. I was not there to promote or research tea, I was there sharing my story as a gardener and we found each other.

Buddy knows how to grow plants. I, unfortunately, am no expert in plant cuttings nor am I an expert in propagation of any kind. Buddy has taken the time to show me how to ramp up production, how to take cuttings, how to germinate tea seed, and many other valuable lessons in tea growing. I am very blessed to have Nigel Melican as my technical consultant and Buddy Lee as my friend.

If we get so tied up in our bushes that we don’t find time to network among people outside the tea world, we will forget that tea is best when served for two…or more!  Go out and meet some folks as you never know when you will meet someone who will change your life and share your passion for tea.

Agri-Tourism: If You Don’t Know What It Is, You Should

AgriTourismby Naomi Rosen

You’ve accomplished goal #1 – the tea is in the ground.  Now what?

For some US tea growers, the next step will be tapping into a growing trend here in the US, and around the world for that matter: Agri-tourism.  Over the years, people have experienced a massive disconnect from relationships and interaction with the actual growers of our foods.  That trend seems to be fading quickly as a shift towards Buying/Eating Local and Slow Food movements emerge and gain traction.  Within that concept of buying from local farmers is the idea of connecting with, and learning, about the food we are consuming.

The Buy Local movement can be seen on your local Main Street weekly: Farmer’s Markets! Since 1994, the number of farmers markets in the USDA National Farmers Market Directory has more than quadrupled to a reported 7,864 in August 2012. (Source: USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service)  People want to be able to ask questions directly of the grower, there’s a sense of transparency and safety in that.

A similar movement sweeping across our amber waves of grain is the idea of Agri-Tourism.  And it’s more than just picking apples at an orchard, although that is one of my family’s favorite fall activities!  This kind of tourism opportunity is a vital growth opportunity for the US economy. Speaking in generic tourism terms the 2012 Bureau of Economic Analysis report tells us that “Total Tourism-Related Employment  was 7.7 million jobs in the fourth quarter of 2012 and consisted of 5.5 million (71 percent) direct tourism jobs — jobs where workers produce goods and services sold directly to visitors — and 2.2 million (29 percent) indirect tourism-related jobs — jobs where workers produce goods and services used to produce what visitors purchase.” (Source: US Department of Commerce Bureau of Economic Analysis)  

If we breakdown Agri-Tourism, and how it relates to tea, you can see that there are multiple income factors:

  • Lodging (B&B’s are very popular!)
  • Gift shops and memorabilia (minus the tea…we’re talking Tshirts and mugs here)
  • Tea tours
  • Specialty events (concerts, meetings, etc.)

And all of that is without having sold a single leaf and two buds.

To give you a great example of how Agri-Tourism is being embraced and used to revitalize entire communities, you only have to look South.  And then East.  September 9, 2013, Mississippi State sent John Poros, with The Carl Small Town Center, to FiLoLi Tea Farm in Brookhaven, MS.  In the prep stages, John will be assisting in farm flow and schematics with some help from the Architecture, Interior Design and Landscape Design schools at MSU.  This preparation will allow the farm to “funnel” people from Interstate 55, Highway 84, and the City of Brookhaven.  Not to beat a dead horse…but note the assistance from a local university!

Why all this effort for one tea farm?  That’s the best part.  It’s not just to benefit FiLoLi Tea Farms.  They are but one stop in the creation of the “Bread Basket of Mississippi Agritourism Trail.”  John Poros’ work is funded via USDA Rural Development grants and private donations.  Stops on this route will include farms, a winery, a distillery, a dairy and an assortment of Southern history and cultural hotspots.  In all, this trail will include 10 stops over a 180 mile route, averaging one stop every 18 miles.  That doesn’t include any additional venues that can be added later.  Ideas like this trail will impact multiple communities and small businesses which translates into tourism dollars in the pockets.

This will not be the last you will hear of Agri-Tourism…just a little something to get you all warm and fuzzy to the idea!  If your tea farm is already participating in Agri-Tourism, we want to hear about it.  If you have participated in Agri-Tourism and come across unique and successful examples, we want to hear about it.  If you love the idea and want to implement something like this for your tea farm, we want to hear about how we can help you establish that program.  Long story short, we want to hear from you!

Robert Fortune’s Less Well Known US Tea Seed Adventure

by Nigel Melican, Teacraft Ltd

It is now well known, through Sarah Rose’s 2010 book For All the Tea in China: Espionage, Empire And The Secret Formula For The World’s Favorite Drink And Change History” and the 2001 film “Robert Fortune: The Tea Thief” that Scottish botanist Robert Fortune was commissioned in the 1840s by the Royal Horticultural Society to research the exotic flora of China – and ended up “stealing” from the Chinese tea seed and plants with which the British East India Company established tea growing in Assam.

What is less well known, and is still in some circles disputed, is that he was chartered by the US Government to return to China for a subsequent seed hunting trip in 1858 officially intended to found the US tea industry.  This tea flourished for a while but was abandoned some 50 years later.  Some of the Charleston Tea Farm bushes are likely to be descendants of his seeds.

William Ukers’ notable 1936 work “All About Tea” alludes to his commission by the US Patents Office and the subsequent raising of bushes from these seeds in North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Tennessee, but neglects to mention the shoddy treatment that Fortune received from his employers on his return.  However, a little digging in the archives turns up a 1971 article in Arnoldia – the journal of the Harvard University Arnold Arboretum – which quotes chapter and verse, letters in the US National Archives, from the US Government to Fortune requesting his assistance and his replies; and the address of the US agent in London who negotiated his recruitment.  He was commissioned, as a seed collecting agent, in the pay of the US Patents Office for 13 months including the duration of his trip to China.  His date of departure was March 4, 1858, and the terms of his employment were a £500 fee plus £700 for expenses, the same terms as agreed previously by the British for him to collect seed for Assam.  This was to be his fourth seed finding expedition to China – and I believe his last.  Fortune reported regularly from China to the US Commissioner of Patents in Washington and dispatched tea seed from Hong Kong to the USA on December 6, 1858.  Further shipments of many cases of tea and other tree seeds novel to the USA followed, the last being on February 19, 1859. A five acre US Experimental and Propagating Garden was set up in Washington under the US Patents Office to receive the seed which produced 26,000 tea plants.

On his return to Scotland from China, Fortune was summarily dismissed by the US Government, who under threat of legal action paid him 6 month’s salary in lieu of notice, and proceeded to eliminate all traces of their connection with him.  The real reason for this unexpected dismissal of Fortune without any credit after playing a key role, and for its subsequent obfuscation by the US Government is now not clear – perhaps departmental economizing, or maybe a fear that the USA would also be accused of plant stealing from China, or that the US Government wanted to distance itself from its collusion with a British agent of the East India Company that was acting as proxy for the British Government in India (at this time the infamous and bloody reprisals were being meted out by the British for the Indian Mutiny of 1867).  We will probably never know the truth – while the series of correspondence between Fortune and the US Patents Commissioner and his agent in London is held in The National Archives in Washington – the letters concerning his dismissal are conspicuously missing.

As Arnoldia comments, “but for the preservation of a number of Fortune’s letters in the National Archives, there would be little direct record of his employment by the (US) Patents Office”.

I find it fascinating that tea so often “gets into the blood”.  In researching this rather murky piece of US tea history I discovered one of Robert Fortune’s living descendants – Jem McDowall, Vice President at Universal Commodities, a New York tea brokering company.  Jem’s family records of Robert’s tea plant hunting deeds are silent about any employment by the US Government and it took him a while to believe what I had discovered.  He later told me “Family papers always regarded the 1858 trip as a commercial transaction for which he did not get paid, let alone get due credit.  I guess it was more of a “contract” than we were led to believe. The whole episode was not a good memory it seems!”

Tea celebrity Bruce Richardson, owner of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas, provided me a personal anecdote which touches on the story: his wife’s sister and husband once owned a new subdivision home built on the site of Dr Shepard’s original 100 acres of tea planted in Summerville, SC. The first time he visited their home – on Lipton Lane – he found his brother-in-law weed-whacking tea seedlings that were actively sprouting around his swimming pool.  These Summerville plants were related to Fortune’s 1858 collection, and to some of the plants now on Wadmalaw Island.  Furthermore, James H. Rion, Winsboro, S.C., in 1892 wrote: “In the fall of 1859, I received from the Patent Office, Washington, a very tiny tea-plant, which I placed in my flower-garden as a curiosity.  It has grown well, has always been free from any disease, has had full out-door exposure, and attained its present height (5 feet 8 inches) in the year 1865.  It is continually producing healthy seedlings. This shows that the plant finds itself entirely at home where it is growing. There cannot be the least doubt but that the tea-plant will flourish in South Carolina.”

The whole Robert Fortune episode appears to show the US Government in rather poor light and adds yet another lost opportunity for US tea growing – a chapter of lost opportunities that stretch from Andre Michaux in 1795 to Colonel August C Tyler’s American Tea Growing company in 1903.  We sincerely hope the US League of Tea Growers will learn from the lessons of history – as George Santayana said – those who do not are doomed to repeat it.