Challenges to Growing Tea in the USA

Thank you to the Andalusia Star News  for this picture of Bob Sims (Andalusia Tea) and Nigel Melican prepping the fields for tea in Alabama!

Thank you to the Andalusia Star News for this picture of Bob Sims (Andalusia Tea) and Nigel Melican prepping the fields for tea in Alabama!

by Nigel Melican – Teacraft, Ltd.

Nobody said that growing tea in the USA was going to be easy – so I think it’s time to look at some of the challenges that face the intrepid US tea grower.  Most of the traditional tea growing systems around the world rely on hand labor to solve their problems – but US growers must find innovative low labor ways around these.

And remember, every problem is an opportunity in disguise, so in no particular order we have to find answers to:

Weeds in Young Tea – when tea is mature the cover should be thick enough to smother weeds – but young tea is particularly susceptible to the competition. The cost of hand weeding is out and most growers will avoid herbicides, so we need a smart solution to the first three years.

Effective planting by machine – faced with planting 5,000 young bushes into every acre we shall need a dedicated machine system to plant them safely and swiftly into the ground.  Machine planters do exist but are designed to plant shallow for tiny root balls or deep for bare root plants.  No planter has been found that will handle tea plants propagated in the traditional way.  An opportunity for a bright engineer here!

Nursery handling for machine planting – propagation and growing-on techniques will have to be modified to match the capability of the planting machine – the traditional 1 gallon pot is not going to cut it for tea planting. The horticultural industry has solved bigger problems.

Minimizing nursery time – every month in the nursery is a month’s yield lost in the field.  Traditionally tea plants take 12-18 months in the nursery to grow strong enough for transferring into field conditions.  Techniques to produce vigorous young tea plants in significantly reduced nursery time are essential to the bottom line.  Again, this can be done if pressure is put on horticulturalists to devise effective systems.

Breeding for season extension – similarly, starting to flush harvestable leaf a week or two earlier or to keep producing into the fall will add profitability.  US summers are short compared to many tea countries where leaf flushes all year round.  It’s a tough target – but one that has been cracked in other crops.

Nutrient management – soil nutrition is expensive whether the fertilizer inputs are produced organically or from non-renewable fossil sources.  We have to aim to optimize yield and quality while minimizing nutrient inputs.  This requires knowledge of crop responses, precise monitoring of nutrient balance, and effective management of the system.  With this ability in place, we can both reduce nutrient wastage and improve the environment.

Managing formative pruning – traditionally the first three years of a tea bush’s life are devoted to skilled hand pruning that forms a strong branched structure that bears the plucking table.  It may involve redesigning the bush for mechanical husbandry.  Can we shape bushes entirely by machine?  Can we do it more quickly?  Can we improve on the hand pruned table format?  A breakthrough here will pay dividends – failure will be a millstone around tea growers’ necks.

Mechanical harvesting – while corn and cotton have been mechanically harvested for decades it is a new technique for tea, but essential to the larger scale US grower.  We need to build on the best techniques and develop them.  This means sourcing and importing Japanese tea harvesters – which at present are precluded from import into the USA by Federal EPA regulations – another bridge to cross!

USLTG will be working on behalf of all US tea growers to encourage universities, public bodies, forward thinking private companies, and Individual growers to come up with working solutions to these challenges – and doubtless many others that will arise as the industry develops. We MUST start thinking of these things now before it is too late. Remember that what we do now is the standard for decades to come. We appreciate any support or feedback on any of these initiatives. 


17 thoughts on “Challenges to Growing Tea in the USA

  1. Aloha! Excellent identification of the opportunities being presented by the challenges of creating LQ (Life Quality) small scale tea farm businesses. We think setting up a cooperative to provide the support services, such as automated harvesting, is one key to developing this opportunity. Hawaii Tea Growers Cooperative based in Hilo, Hawaii is deep into the business development planning process now while also testing our assumptions with small scale tests. Looking forward to sharing lessons learned with the USLTG as we move forward. Based on my business development experience all of these challenges can be solved relatively easily if we work together and share information.

  2. Hello Nigel, thank you for the article. Can you elaborate on the last point about Japanese harvesting machines being banned from import by the EPA? Why is that? Seems crazy to me. How will you get around it?

    • Stephen, I am no lawyer but here is my take on the situation. There are now in place Federal Regulations about importing emission releasing devices, basically i.c. engines. These are policed by the EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency – Office of Transportation and Air Quality). Users and importers of i.c. engines must conform to the regs which means that the engines (and vehicles or equipment containing them) must meet the emission requirements stated within the regs. As far as I can see the reg that affects importing tea harvesters is 40 CFR 89, Subpart G – Importation of Nonconforming Nonroad Engines.
      Engine redesign to conform, testing and certification takes considerable time and money for the manufacturer, which if he is selling 100,000 units in the US is money well spent. For a total sale of perhaps 20 tea harvesters in the US it is an added cost that Japanese makers are wary of. There are some exemptions available in the regs and we shall endeavor to get a ruling on whether one of these applies to tea harvesters – but putting together a case costs money and as yet the USLTG has no fund… I would welcome a second opinion on my interpretation of the regs – but the three Japanese harvester companies I have spoken with all tell me the same.
      Nigel at Teacraft

      • Aloha! We ran into similar challenges when building a $10 million sake brewery in Oregon. We ended up working with the Japanese makers to use US approved mechanical systems which then utilized the imported Japanese specialty parts. In some cases, we simply worked with the Japanese makers and local US machine shops to create licensed specific use parts as well. Where there is a will there is a way.

      • Grif,
        Yes… I think Nigel’s remark at the beginning was, “Nobody said that growing tea in the USA was going to be easy…” We have to find ways to do this… and it may take buying machinery without engines and finding someone here to work with them to install the engines once here… or trying to get through the government “red tape” and even building from start to finish here… the opportunities are endless in US Grown Tea

      • I see that the United States is going to get tougher on emissions. 2 cycle motors might become a thing of the past. An option would be to develop a solar system to the cutting machine. I’m no engineer , but someone at some university could develop one.

  3. Grif, yes, we believe that open collaboration and sharing of information will be one of the keys of success in the US. We have TONS of ground to cover and lost time in the centuries of expertise already around the world in a very small window of time to make this work for us. We can’t be miserly with information at this point or we hold everyone back.

  4. Hi Nigel, thanks for this inventory. An example today I can share: we have streamlined our augur and planting ops. We drilled 600 holes today to put tea tress into. Only two guys mostly who come out after college classes at Noon accomplished that with another adult joining them from 3:30-6.00 when even using lights it’s too dark. We tried crews of 8 down to one. Three is the optimum. And our little tractor is a major workhorse-we use it for augur, moving plants with a tractor fork-an innovation we made here at Andalusia Tea by making our own walled pallets. We have through trial improved our efficiency by triple in the last few weeks planting which is not just grounding plants but several tasks associated. So mechanization is possible and on a small scale we are half hand work and half tractor. Just thought I would add some color as an “intrepid” out in the field in Alabama USA.
    We keep thinking about planting machines, especially when we dream! Otherwise every day or two we create new efficiencies. This will happen when the scale increases and methods change with the scale.
    Bob Sims, Andalusia Tea, LLC in Andalusia, AL,

    • Good news on developing speed-up improvements to the initial planting scheme I left you with Bob. A memo for all of us is that we should document what we do, what we improve, what we perfect. Otherwise expertise gets lost or forgotten. Er, just how exactly did they build those pyramids . . .?

  5. A little note for Bob, Grif and any others out there in the trenches learning via “trial by fire”, I am always looking for more information to post on this blog for our farmers. I know this stuff can be time consuming to write about, but I can help you with some of that. If you’d be interested at all in sharing information, shoot me a note and we can get started!! ( or call 877-795-1411)

    • Thanks Naomi. My situation is so dynamic that changes occur daily if not weekly. I would not know what to write about until I learn more except that it’s dynamic and changng fast! Also even goals are like that- we overshot our goals this week a lot but underperformed for the first little while of planting. Same happened in our propagation phase a year and a half ago and following. When I know what I am doing I will be a little less shy.

      • Also, Nigel, I keep a journal but also the farm has it’s journal, too, kept by my chief of operations and of everything. And regarding dynamic change, when I wrote my first post on this chain, I was using my compact Kubota tractor to drill holes with an augur. We began with one row at a time, but now we do two rows at a time because even if we make a slight linear error in a double hedge versus another hedge,we have perfected one hedge straight. A hedge in our scheme is two rows. But now we drill two rows at a time and keep that hedge doubly straight with measuring sticks and a farm implement that leaves a double hedge row line before we paint holes and drill. That explanation alone should scare off all the writers and confuse everyone!

        However, tonight we reserved a rental skid steer. We will now move much faster but spend rental money. If that works we will change the planting of the final hedges with different equipment- sometimes! We are getting the skid steer because we have to back up to drill two holes in a row and it’s very hard to see and very hard on the neck and back and requires slow movement for safety and accuracy both. The skid steer has the augur placed on the front, not the back. So we can drill maybe 1000 holes to 500 (and a week or two ago it was 1000 to 200.)
        So reporting what we do is futile for now unless someone knows all the steps and keeps up with them daily.
        We broke the crews up into different sizes but this Saturday we will have three planting crews- one carries plants only in each , the other two place amendments on the pile of sort and one is on their knees pushing soil into the deep hole until it is the approximate depth, pressed, to the root ball. Then the remainder of the dirt. Now we add toppings and seed for the winter/early summer cover.

        We also recently sowed cover crops for the winter and Soring simultaneously: in our judgment locally it is best now to seed winter rye grass and crimson clover of the locally used type. The clover will not root well if we try to sow it into a thick stand of winter rye grass later. These will choke out weeds over the winter and fix nitrogen we hope. Also they add more of many other benefits of composted grass.

        To make that work well we decided yesterday that those covers would germinate at much higher success rate if we put hay on the soil- also to avoid soil erosion- a storm is coming. So we are doing that on top of planting which is changing for the better almost daily.

        The skid steer is an experiment, so we are renting for “one day.” The old boy network paid off. We are picking it up at noon Friday and returning it Monday morning. So for our purposes we get it for three days and maybe a little on Monday morning. We are measuring fuel usage and cost per hour and will report some of that later. Yet three days will be a good experiment to measure the effects.

        OK, this was stream of consciousness and with thumbs. Excuse the poor sentences and typos please, but wanted you to know that is our situation in mid stream planting two acres more or less before winter sets in too much. It is never severe in S Alabama except maybe a day or two but rain can stop us for a week if we get caught napping. With holidays here that is a big setback.

  6. Hi Bob –

    I was excited to learn of your approach to weed control and erosion (“in our judgment locally it is best now to seed winter rye grass and crimson clover of the locally used type. The clover will not root well if we try to sow it into a thick stand of winter rye grass later. These will choke out weeds over the winter and fix nitrogen we hope. Also they add more of many other benefits of composted grass….To make that work well we decided yesterday that those covers would germinate at much higher success rate if we put hay on the soil- also to avoid soil erosion”).

    Last year was our first try at winter rye, and it never seemed to stop growing and going to seed. I’ll be interested to learn how you prevent the grass from overwhelming the young plants. Do you use hay around the plants? How close are you getting to the actual plans when you sow the seed? The cool thing about the grass is that you can mow it. The tough part for us last year was that it kept raining and so mowing became nearly impossible before the grass was over a foot tall.

    Also stream of consciousness, but all fingers involved. We’re headed to a hard freeze tonight. Hope all is well down South, but I suspect you all will have the same arctic blast. Another benefit to the hay, maybe, if it is close or thick enough to the plants to protect them from the cold.


    • Last season was the rainiest in the southeast in a long time, thus cooler. Winter rye grass is also called annual rye or just rye grass but some reading might not know that it is not rye grain.

      So, the lower temps and longer cool period confused the grass I am guessing. It normally dies here in Texas in April or May. I wrote a comment on the hay but missed Jason’s so will hold it until I can get a better interface than iPhone. That to avoid repetition.
      Just know that we are experimenting and I am still an amateur!

  7. Hi everyone. This is Jason. I cannot post as myself as this account uses my personal email so just identifying myself.
    Anyway, to weigh in on what I am doing, I planted a “non-reseeding” winter rye, a reseeding inoculated crimson clover (really for color and unique honey that we are hoping to also harvest once in bloom), and Auburn University Olympic Hairy Vetch.
    The winter rye will get pretty tall (actually is already nicely growing) which will shield the plants from cold. The rye will also die out somewhere around April here and leave a nice “hay” from the growth and will not reseed. The vetch will also die out early but will leave a nice ‘mat” of “hay” as well. It also reseeds so it will grow from year to year. Vetch is also used in sustainable agriculture to provide a nice mulch layer keeping weeds from emerging while fixing nitrogen in the soil. The crimson clover will also fix nitrogen and will continue to grow throughout the summer. It also reseeds.
    This is the mix I am using because it has been the cover crop method and mixture that has been used around here for years. I think we all need to find what works for us– talk to an old school farmer in your area because they will love telling you how to do it and it revives the “lost arts” of time tested methods that are dying off every day…
    My only issue with hay is to make sure you have “straw” hay and not grass hay. If you use grass hay, you are planting more grass as you cannot effectively remove seed from the grass hay. Most grass hay in the Southern US is Bermuda Grass, which for hay is considered a beneficial forage, but in a flower bed, which is in essence what a tea farm is, is considered a innocuous weed and can choke out small plants. So BEWARE with hay, make sure you know what you are spreading out. I personally am considering pine needle straw because it will acidify the soil, keep weeds at bay, and will provide cover from cold weather, but will not reseed. But I am sure everyone would assume the pine timber farmer among us is suggesting pine needle mulch, LOL.

  8. Donnie Barrett emailed me today with what he does for weed control, which I will share. Donnie probably has been growing tea on US soil longer than any individual in the US (I think I am correct in this. If I am not, he is close to the top of the list.) He is in Fairhope, AL and his father was a manager at a former Lipton Experiment Station near his farm.
    He says, “If I crawl up and down the rows with a pair of gloves on and pull out the briers and water oaks and popcorn trees only twice a year, I have no weed problems. Because I mulch so much with oak leaves we introduce lots of acorns. If you don’t pull them up when young, they get big fast and hard to deal with. During spring time picking there is a light vine that runs quickly over the tea but goes away with summer heat. You have to make sure it does not get into dhool because it is bitter. Just dragging your fingers over it drags it away easily. I will do this when I look for wasps (my biggest picking problem) before my helpers start picking.”

    Thank you Donnie for this comment.

  9. Pingback: Mississippi Sustainable Agriculture Network – From Farm To Pitcher

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