NEW: Grower Spotlight

Tea House Timesby Naomi Rosen

We’d like to send a gigantic thank you to Gail and the team at The Tea House Times! They have graciously offered the USLTG a regular monthly column on their blog, and we’ve decided that that space would be best served spotlighting our US tea growers!

There are a few ways you can help us out!

  1. Visit the Tea House Times blog and check out the very first grower spotlight: Tsubaki Camellias, Inc.
  2. Let us know what you’d like to hear about from US tea growers! What questions should we ask? What information is helpful to other growers? You can do so in the comments section below, or email our Media team directly at naomi@joysteaspoon.com.
  3. Last, but certainly not least, let us know if you and your tea growing venture would like to be featured. You must grow tea in the US, and you must be a member of the USLTG in good standing. Again, you can email our media team at naomi@joysteaspoon.com!

Again, thank you so much to The Tea House Times for supporting US tea growing efforts and thank you to our growers that are willing to share a bit about their gardens.

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You “Mite” Want To Get Involved In This Study

UofFloridaby Naomi Rosen

The US League of Tea Growers received a request from Dr. Childers, University of Florida, to participate in a study on mite varieties present in US grown tea. We are inviting each of you to take the time to read his letter to our members and get involved in his study! Dr. Childers’ email address is at the end of the article and we encourage you to ask questions and get involved. The benefits from a study like this are exactly why this league was formed and we look forward to reading Dr. Childers’ findings.

January 26, 2015

Dear Naomi,

I am a retired professor formerly with the University of Florida at the Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred.  You can find me on their web site, locate emeritus/retired faculty and scroll down. You can also find me on Google…Carl C. Childers, University of Florida. I conducted research on citrus with emphasis on controlling mite pests. One area was evaluating potential biological control agents (primarily predacious mites). 

Some years ago I saw the article in Southern Living Magazine about a tea farm on Wadmalaw Island in South Carolina.  It was a partnership at the time and their brand of tea was American Classic.  They stated in the article that pesticides were not used.  I immediately became interested as tea is known to have a large number of mite pests as does citrus. I met with the partners and began taking samples to look for mites. Since then I’ve taken samples in a number of locations in and around Charleston, South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi.

The more I looked into the literature the more I realized that there was very little useful information regarding control of pest mites without having to resort to the use of acaricides = miticides. Much of the published literature is from India and much of that is of limited use.  There have been some excellent studies in places like Indonesia but nothing here in the States. I’ve talked with colleagues and we have decided to do a book on tea mites that would include pest mite species, predacious mites with focus on mite predators, and possibly include other mite groups that contribute to organic breakdown of tea plants or mites that feed on organic debris on plant surfaces. The work would cover tea mite pests worldwide as well as what is found here in the States.  So far, I’ve found 8 to 10 plant feeding mites that could become potential pests of tea here in the States. The good news is that all but one species occur in low numbers most likely due to predation by a diverse group of predatory mites.

It would benefit a young, developing industry to know about these mites early on rather than discovering unexpected plant damage in the future.  Part of our team consists of two South African scientists.  They are both taxonomists and provide excellent support in species identifications of tea mites collected here in the States.  They will begin sampling for mites on tea in various plantations in South Africa as well as from a second African country this year.  Several countries in Africa are actively involved in growing tea

My sampling consists of collecting leaves, fruit (=seed pods), and three ages of wood at each location.  Each of these samples is collected separately (i.e., 50 leaves, or 25 fruit or 30 cm of wood per age of the wood. I look at one, two and three plus year old wood cuttings. Each sample is immediately washed in a bucket containing 80% ethanol. Where possible I take repeated samples (usually three per sample type). Each sample is vigorously agitated in the alcohol and plant material is then discarded.  I pour the rinsate (with the mites) into a labeled glass jar and return it for processing. No plant materials leave the farm!

Mites range in size from less than 100 micrometers to 1 mm in length….very tiny.  Many of these mites require a magnified handlens to even see them!  However, if certain pest mite numbers are great enough then there is potential for visible plant damage to be seen.

I would like to request that you contact your membership to see if additional tea growers (farms and nurseries) would be willing to let me sample for mites. There are no fees or expected payment by me. I see this as a needed opportunity to expand our knowledge of the mite complex on tea in the States and to potentially contribute to the growth of a new industry. Ideally, sample sites of several acres would be preferred to small plots of tea. My objective, hopefully, is to locate farms/nurseries in different states to gain a broader idea of mite diversity and potential problems facing a young industry.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Carl

Carl C. Childers, Emeritus Professor of Entomology, University of Florida

e-mail address: ccc1957@ufl.edu

Adopt-A-Tea-Plant Program Launched

GMTCo Adopt a Plantby Naomi Rosen

Congratulations to the crew down at The Great Mississippi Tea Company on the launch of their “Adopt-A-Tea-Plant” initiative that kicked off today!

For program details or to get your questions answered, you can visit their webpage!

As a grower, have you ever considered a program like this to subsidize farm funding?

Tea Maps Galore!

by Naomi Rosen

In November of 2013, we wrote up an article about a tea mapping project that was being spearheaded by the University of North Carolina. This series of maps shows tea plantation locations in the United States, with precipitation, temperature, humidity, and soil pH data, to evaluate current and future locations for tea growing. We are excited to share the initial results and update you on how you can participate in the project moving forward!

US Plantations and Precipitation

US Plantations and Precipitation

Map 1: Continental U.S. Tea Plantations and Mean Annual Precipitation
This map includes tea plantation locations and mean, annual precipitation for the continental United States. Individual tea plantation locations were added by longitude and latitude. Thirty-year normal annual precipitation data, covering 1981 – 2010, was acquired from the PRISM Climate Group at Oregon State University.

US Plantations and Soil pH

US Plantations and Soil pH

Map 2: Continental U.S. Tea Plantations and Soil pH Values
This map includes tea plantation locations, average soil pH levels by state, and county-level soil pH data for counties containing at least one tea plantation for the continental United States. State-level data was acquired from Better Crops (2010) while county-level data was acquired from the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

US Plantations and Mean Annual Temperature

US Plantations and Mean Annual Temperature

Map 3: Continental U.S. (Temperature)
This map includes tea plantation locations and mean, annual precipitation for the continental United States. Thirty-year normal temperature data, covering 1981 – 2010, was acquired from the PRISM Climate Group at Oregon State University.

US Hawaii Tea Plantations

US Hawaii Tea Plantations

Map 4: Hawai’i Tea Plantations
This map shows tea plantation locations for the state of Hawaii.

As mentioned in the previous article:

At the moment, they are creating a Tea Terroir Map of the US.  This is done by gathering spatial data that will be overlayed with physical conditions.  At first, the map will only offer an initial sampling but down the road, could be a web-based display with layers at different scales.  This information will be useful in determining where and why tea is growing best and might help mitigate certain problems that can be fixed prior to tea planting (less than ideal rainfall could be treated with proper irrigation and rainfall collection points, how microclimates affect tea growth, etc.).

 

At this time, we need more of our US growers to provide tea plantation information to Dr. Walcott and Robert (the grad student actually compiling the maps). Basic, voluntary information is the only thing required. If you have your tea garden’s lat-long, zip code, or town name – any of that can be “geo-coded” and placed in the location layer. Dr. Walcott can be contacted with tea garden locations, or questions about the Tea Terroir Mapping Project, at smwalcot@gmail.com.

Thank you for supporting academic projects that can continue to further the mission of growing tea in the United States!

Our Attempt at Growing Tea

One of Janis's remaining tea bushes!

One of Janis’s remaining tea bushes!

by Naomi Rosen

As a tea lover, I have dreams of one day being able to visit tea farms all over the United States. Before I start booking my trips, I’m keeping tabs on start-up farms from California to New York and Michigan to Mississippi. As with any new venture, not all of the farms are going to flourish…even if they look great on paper. Why is that? Growing tea is an art and you need to be one hell of an artist! I bet you didn’t know that tea has a fickle side and Janis Badarau of CrafTEA Designs and TeaGuide.net has the first-hand knowledge to prove it and has graciously agreed to share the story of her and her husband’s struggles to launch a tea farm in South Carolina! Take notes…there are multiple lessons to learn!

Naomi: Where are you located? 
Janis: Sunny South Carolina in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We moved here from New Jersey (a.k.a. The Garden State), just oustide NYC, with soil so excellent that you could spit a watermelon seed one day and it would be a vine the next day! Well, okay, that’s a little exaggerated, but the soil was perfect. It’s been a long learning curve trying to grow in very poor soil. (Wadmalaw Island, on the opposite side of the state, has almost opposite conditions to ours, with a long history of successful farming.)
Naomi: What kind of educational prep did you do prior to planting the tea in ground?
Janis: I informally consulted with Nigel Melican at the 2007 World Tea East, and with one of the horticulturists at Clemson University. Of course I read everything I could, mostly online, for information. This was six or seven years ago so information was limited. I also asked questions of the sellers where I purchased my tea plants (two different nurseries). The first grower was not too helpful with the care of the plants. The second, while much more helpful with information, was located in the New England area and was unfamiliar with our climate and growing conditions.  If and when we purchase additional plants, I imagine it will be from North Carolina.
Naomi: Did you know ahead of time about the soil condition and irrigation problems on your land or did you learn on the fly?
Janis: We knew when we purchased the land that it had been part of a former cotton farm that the owners had over-used, abused, and abandoned, and we knew that growing on it would be a challenge. One of the first things we did was build several raised beds for vegetable gardening. We put two of our first four tea plants in one of these beds and the other two into pots. The owners of the local farm and garden supply store — and any farmers who happened to be in the store at the time — helped us out with recommendations to rebuild the soil, which was extremely acidic and clay-ey (swampy when wet, bricklike when dry). We’ve been adding lime, manure, autumn leaves, grass cuttings, and a lot of non-composted household waste, including eggshells, banana peels, pea and bean pods, spent tea leaves, etc., to improve the soil. It has taken several years for the soil to regenerate. We also put in plants that break up the soil: in the beds Irish potatoes and sweet potatoes do this well, and outside the garden we’ve planted trees and grasses that were recommended for their deep, hearty roots. A couple of other problems with growing on this land were the wild raspberry bushes — we’re delighted to have them in a clump near the fruit trees, but they are very aggressive elsewhere. And the construction debris we keep finding every time we dig! Seems that the builder was a bit of a slob and buried almost as much debris as he put into the solid-waste container for legal disposal. Finally, the climate is not necessarily conducive to growing tea: the air is usually quite dry, and temperatures get into the 80’s, 90’s, and 100’s for weeks on end with little or no rain. We need to canopy our tomato, bell pepper, cucumber, and parsley plants because the sun will burn them right up; at one point we drew up a plan to plant tea amongst the larger trees to provide shade.
Naomi: Were there any actions taken to rectify irrigation and soil or did the fire ants get to the plants first?
Janis: There is accessible water under our land, and we were looking into digging a well for irrigation. We still plan to build a well once all the other puzzle pieces are ready to go. Around the third growing season, we discovered earthworms and almost threw a party … until around the fourth season when they started disappearing and we learned that the fire ants were eating them and anything else they could get their miserable little jaws around (roots, stems, leaves). When we got rid of one hill it seems like two or three more popped up. They build their accursed hills right around plants and trees, swarming the plant until it dies — both directly in the soil and even in pots. I know there’s a purpose for every creature on Earth, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what fire ants are good for. It was really heart-breaking when our beautiful thriving tea plants started to die out thanks to the fire ants.
Naomi: Are there any known treatments for fire ants?
Janis: There are various ways to limit them, but nothing really stops them. Not poison, not boiling water, not gasoline fire, nothing. And we’ve tried all of these methods. At one point last year I was seriously looking into whether we could raise anteaters. These animals are from the same South American region as the fire ants, but their climate requirements are rather limited…unlike the miserable fire ants. Locals tell us that there are a couple of insects that kill fire ants by using their bodies to lay their eggs, but that these insects are in turn difficult to manage and often become a nuisance themselves.
Naomi: Have you tried plucking/processing any of the leaves from the remaining bushes?
Janis: Not from the current bushes. The first plants were a good size before they started to give up, and I plucked a couple of handfuls of leaves of various sizes from them and dried them in the sun. They produced some interesting cups, tho’ not something I’d want to drink on a regular basis! Although we can’t farm tea right now, we haven’t given up and continue to make improvements and further our education. And, be inspired by folks like Jason at The Great Mississippi Tea Company.
Naomi: Any suggestions for the types of questions one might need to ask when scouting out partners in this tea growing venture?
Janis: Firstly, make sure you find out what kind of tea-specific experience your partners might have. For example, Clemson has an excellent Ag school, and maintains a beautiful state botanical garden. However, the majority of their focus with camellias is of the flowering variety, not C. sinensis. Second, find out what kind of staying power your partners have in the area. One of the companies I originally purchased stock from was somewhat responsive in the beginning, but then handed operations over to other employees and the information I received wasn’t as forthcoming.

 

Thank you to Janis and her husband for sharing their experience and struggles of growing tea in South Carolina! For some of our growers that are knee deep in the trenches of establishing flourishing tea farms, what were some of your hard earned lessons? Something no amount of research could have prepared you for?