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A different kind of tea party: how US farmers are brewing up a new industry | Guardian Sustainable Business | The Guardian

As a girl growing up in South Korea, Unchon Ramos recalls her mother would always give her green tea to drink at bedtime when she didn’t feel well.

“And when she washed my hair, she always put a couple green tea leaves in the water,” Ramos said.

Slowly, she learned about green tea’s many benefits: that it’s loaded with antioxidants, which prevent cells in the body from deteriorating, and that it can improve brain function and boost immune system functionality. Green tea is also high in flavonoids, associated with reducing cardiovascular disease and preventing cancer. A study in 2007 by the US Department of Agriculture found that a single cup of brewed green tea has seven times more flavonoids than brewed black tea, nine times more than a single apple, and nearly five times more than a glass of wine.

So when Ramos and her husband, Louis, decided to buy a rundown old farm in Virginia in 2012, it didn’t take her long to decide what to grow. But local farmers told her Virginia is not the kind of place to grow tea. “My hometown is the same weather as Virginia, and they’re growing tea, so I thought: I’m going to try anyway.”

Ramos now runs Virginia First Tea Farm, which sells soap, shampoo, dish soap and laundry detergent, all infused with green tea grown on an 80-acre farm in Spotsylania, Virginia. This year, building on a thriving mail-order business, the family’s products became available at eight Whole Foods Markets in Virginia and Washington, DC. Next, Ramos wants to process green tea for drinking.

Unchon Ramos with a display of Virginia First Tea Farm products at a Whole Foods store in Newport News, Virginia.
Unchon Ramos with a display of Virginia First Tea Farm products at a Whole Foods store in Newport News, Virginia. Photograph: Joanna Ramos

Brewing a local industry

Although tea growing has a millennia-long history in Asia, it has virtually none in the US. There are only about 30 established farms in the US growing Camellia sinensis, the shrub from which all tea varieties are produced, according to the US League of Tea Growers. Although that number is small, it has tripled since 2011. Approximately an equal number of farms grow tea in Hawaii, where the climate is more accommodating. (Camellia sinensis is sensitive to harsh weather and soil conditions.)

Rie Tulali, spokeswoman for the US League of Tea Growers, attributed the growth to people who simply like tea. More than half of all Americans drink tea daily, according to a report by the Tea Association of the USA. That consumption is growing about 5% annually, and the US is the only Western country experiencing growth. Also, that increase is coming entirely in the arena of specialty loose-leaf teas, while familiar bagged tea sales remain flat.

Tea parlors and cafes have an increased presence in major cities throughout the US, as do commercial tea shops like T2 and Les Palais des Thes, which sells loose leaf teas in dozens of varieties from around the world. Even Starbucks is entering the game. In 2012, it purchased Teavana, a US chain of 300 specialty tea retailers, for $670 million, its largest acquisition ever.

“People really are concerned about their food sources and what their carbon footprint is,” said Judson LeCompte, a research associate in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences at Mississippi State University, home to one of the nation’s largest tea research programs. “So if they can get a locally produced product, that’s much more appealing and they’re willing to pay for it. That gives our products a niche market they can fit into.”

But, while the opportunity for American farmers who want to experiment with tea is growing, there are significant hurdles.

“It’s still kind of in this wild west stage of development, where no one has really figured out the model for growing tea yet,” Tulali says. “Even if someone figures it out in Mississippi, it’s a completely different story in the Pacific Northwest, or California, or Maine because the environments are so different.”

For example, a single region of China may have 300 tea varieties, or genetic cultivars, that have been bred over centuries to tolerate particular soil conditions and local weather extremes. In all of the US, Tulali says, there are still only three or four cultivars.

One lure for American farmers is that tea growing presents few barriers to entry. Although learning to grow and process tea can be challenging, a lucrative crop can be raised on very small plots of land. A grower can plant 6,000 tea bushes on a single acre of land for about $20,000, LeCompte said. That might be 20 times the cost to plant an acre of corn, but the corn must be replanted annually. Tea bushes will produce for hundreds of years, and ultimately yield specialty loose-leaf teas that might sell for $30 an ounce or more – 10 times the price of a familiar box of Lipton tea bags found in every grocery store.

Even so, LeCompte said US tea growers are not likely to ever threaten the dominance of their counterparts in Asia.

“Out of the billions of servings that we import a year, we would be fortunate to produce 1% of that,” he says. “But I do think China and other countries have something to learn from us. And I think we have so much to learn from them.”

The Virginia First Tea Farm property near Spotsylvania, Va.
The Virginia First Tea Farm property near Spotsylvania, Va. Photograph: Joanna Ramos

Learning from the masters

Both green tea and black tea come from Camellia sinensis. The difference between the teas comes in the processing. Black tea is allowed to oxidize after harvest before being dried. This produces a stronger flavor and transforms the leaves with a dark brown color. Green tea is heated through steaming or pan firing, which prevents oxidation. As a result, the leaves remain green and have a more delicate, fresh flavor.

“At first we were, like, ‘This sounds really difficult’,” says Joanna Ramos, Unchon’s daughter and a co-owner of the business. “It’s very experimental, it’s still in its infancy, but it’s going good so far. We are able to get enough green tea to use for our soaps.”

Virginia First grows the tea plants using organic methods, although the company is still working to obtain official organic certification. Weeds are pulled by hand, and no chemical pesticides or fertilizers are used.

Tulali says most US tea growers are not yet using organic methods, because they are focused on producing a viable crop from the finicky plant and finding a viable market for teas that are relatively new and expensive in the US market. “US growers are still experimenting with their plant material and honing their craft,” Tulali says. “But what they do have as a benefit is their farms are typically very small, so they have better quality control over the lots they do have.”

When Ramos launched her business, she made more than 10 trips to her home region of Kumsan, South Korea, to study tea growing. She brought back tea seeds and a Korean recipe for green tea soap. Her husband, Louis, oversees farm operations after retiring from a career in the US Air Force.

While many soaps use animal products like milk and glycerin (often made from animal fat), and fillers such as gluten, the Ramos family sticks to basic ingredients that are sourced locally whenever possible. For example, some of their products include cucumber and dried berries, which are obtained form local organic farms.

A batch of tea leaves and other ingredients being brewed to make Virginia First Tea Farm shampoo and conditioner.
A batch of tea leaves and other ingredients being brewed to make Virginia First Tea Farm shampoo and conditioner. Photograph: Joanna Ramos

The family began selling soaps by word-of-mouth and at local farmer’s markets in the Williamsburg, Virginia, region. Slowly, local natural food markets agreed to carry their products. This year, seven Whole Foods Markets became distributors.

“They are extremely popular,” says Morgan Franklin, assistant manager of Rebecca’s Natural Foods in Charlottesville, Virginia, and one of the first stores to offer Virginia First Tea Farm products.

Unchon says the soaps are made by mixing in a powder from crushed tea leaves. The farm also sells matcha (a powdered green tea beverage) made from tea imported from Korea.

Green tea soaps are relatively common in groceries that focus on selling healthy products, but most are imported. Joanna says as far as she knows, her family’s company is the only one in the US that sells green tea soaps made from tea leaves also grown in the US.

Next, Unchon wants to start selling tea for drinking. But first, the family must acquire facilities for drying and roasting the leaves. Unchon hopes the first tea products for drinking will be produced early next year.

“We’re not trying to be in every supermarket, because that would just be a ridiculous standard to keep up our quality,” Joanna says. “The goal is to be able to keep our quality up and not worry about quantity.”