Tea research is happening – help support it!

Agriculture is important in the United States, and we are lucky to have many academic and government institutions that support it. Without them, it would be much more challenging to be a farmer in the United States, where you need to be equipped with information.

What tea growers need in the US right now is more information about their crop, Camellia sinensis. Academic research can help growers find solutions for plant diseases, choose tea cultivars, and examine various agricultural techniques. You can help make this happen!

This year, researchers from universities across the country are writing USDA federal grants that could fund 5 years of tea research. An grant written earlier this year was rejected, but not without a very positive response from the evaluation. With this positive response, and your help, they can resubmit the grant.

Read more about the grant from research associate Judson LeCompte, and email Judson (jsl279@msstate.edu) or Dr. Bi from the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences (gbi@pss.msstate.edu) to see how you can help with your Letters of Support. 

Deadline: December 3, 2015

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…

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!