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.