Can a novel crop take root in Oregon?
By Katie Lewis
Photos by Shawn Linehan
Tucked in an idyllic valley just south of Salem, neat rows of waist-high tea hedges span a half-acre plot at Minto Island Growers. More than 200 tea varietals thrive in the farm’s mature block that stretches north up a gentle hill. Farmer Elizabeth Jenkins plucks a tender new shoot from a tea plant—the young, greenish color of spring—and gently tosses it into a basket.
The venture would turn this novel tea plot, an agricultural anomaly in Oregon, into a viable business line.
Since taking over the farm’s operations in 2008, Jenkins and her husband, Chris, have cultivated a thriving farm stand and CSA on their 40 acres, which include a certified-organic fruit and vegetable farm, poplar grove, native plant nursery and experimental tea plot.
Their latest venture would turn this novel tea plot, an agricultural anomaly in Oregon, into a viable business line. The Minto Island effort, which dates back 25 years, now looks poised to flower, as part of a growing movement around Oregon and the United States to cultivate this most Asian of agricultural products. With help from a $12,893 working capital grant from the USDA this year to fund processing, packaging and marketing for the farm’s tea, Minto Island’s endeavor is primed to reach commercial scale within a few years.
Oregon producers are hoping to build on our penchant for creating and enjoying fine beverages—from Pinot Noir to coffee—and what experts say is a growing market for tea among aging populations. And there’s no better place to hatch a revolution than at Minto Island, where three generations of agricultural innovation have traced some of the great milestones in Oregon edible crops and nursery products.
Tea is in the blood
Minto Island’s tea plot sprouted from a collaborative venture in the late 1980s between Elizabeth’s father, Rob Miller, and John Vendeland, an agricultural and business development consultant who specializes in coffee and tea. Miller, whose investments run the gamut from poplar trees to a sizable mint farm in Central Oregon, purchased the Salem property in the 1970s.
“Rob Miller is one of the great names in recent Oregon agriculture,” Vendeland says. “He’s been innovative for several decades in forestry, essential oils and essences, and with the tea plot.”
As a child, Jenkins helped pick and process tea that her father planted on the Salem farm. Miller first partnered in 1989 with Vendeland and Steven Smith, founder of Stash, Tazo, and, most recently Steven Smith Teamaker; they all wanted to research the cultivation of tea in Oregon. The trio selected a wide range of seeds and cuttings from far-flung locales, including Japan, Hawaii and inland South Carolina, to evaluate both growing and flavor characteristics with the goal of establishing an Oregon-grown tea.
It turns out that growing tea in the United States isn’t an entirely novel idea. The collection of tea plants in Charleston, South Carolina, which provided several cuttings for the Oregon project, originated as a test plot for varieties from around the world in the mid-1800s; they grew wild for 40 to 50 years when interest in the project waned. “It’s really a quirk of fate,” Vendeland says. “In essence, it’s a natural laboratory, an experiment that we couldn’t replicate. The tea was left to fend for itself.”
Vendeland planted the first seeds and cuttings in a greenhouse near Corvallis and transferred half of the starts to Salem and half to the Stash headquarters in Tigard (eventually the tea plants at Stash all perished due to neglect). Over the next two decades, Miller and Vendeland carefully monitored the plot, whittling down nearly two hundred varietals to the five or six most suitable varietals for the Willamette Valley.
Technically, all tea is derived from the same species of plant, Camellia sinensis, which is native to mainland China and Southeast Asia. Variations in types of tea depend on the levels of oxidation attained through processing; the spectrum ranges from less oxidized green teas to heavily oxidized black teas.
In the Willamette Valley, “cold tolerance is probably the greatest risk,” Vendeland explains. “We are outside of the range for tea in the record cold years. Having said that, we have grown tea through several cold years since first planting. Given this concern, our goal was to introduce diverse germ plasm from areas that had been subjected to very cold periods.”
Minto Island is among a handful of farms growing tea in the United States.
The Jenkinses inherited the tea plot when they took over the farm in 2008. The plot represents both a challenge and an opportunity: Can they transform Oregon-grown tea from a decades-long research project into a commercial-scale operation?
Minto Island is among a handful of farms growing tea in the United States. The largest-scale operation, Bigelow’s 127-acre historic Charleston Tea Plantation in South Carolina, produces “American Classic” green and black bagged tea. The operation has long claimed to be the only tea plantation in the United States, but that is no longer the case.
Several smaller commercial tea estates in Hawaii have expanded in the past decade with funding from the USDA. Most recently, FiLoLi Farms in Mississippi announced plans to plant ten acres of tea in 2014. Closer to home, Sakuma Brothers Farms in Washington’s Skagit Valley planted five acres of tea using cultivars from Minto Island in 1997 and produces small-batch green, oolong and white loose-leaf tea. And the U.S.-grown tea movement continues to gain momentum. The newly formed U.S. League of Tea Growers convened its inaugural meeting at the World Tea Expo, the industry’s trade show, in June 2013. “The organization is in its embryonic stage,” explained Veerinder Chawla, owner of Portland’s Tao of Tea. “The goal is to share lessons learned among growers and bring in different partners such as tea people, processors and retailers who want to support the U.S.-grown tea movement.”
From commercial farms to backyard enthusiasts, seeds are sprouting throughout the Pacific Northwest. This summer, Josh Chamberlain, owner of J-Tea (and husband of the author), planted 48 tea plants behind his Eugene teahouse and plans to transform the harvest from this ‘micro tea farm’ into high-grade black tea. “There’s not a considerable entry barrier to growing tea and it’s a high-yield crop,” he says. “I’ve been encouraging young farmers to start growing it.”
For Chamberlain and others, the endeavor is also educational. Washington chef and tea enthusiast Balazs Henger, who has worked with Jenkins since 2011 to produce whole-leaf oolong, yellow and green teas, teaches an annual tea class at the farm.
According to the Minto Island collaborator Vendeland, the U.S.-grown tea movement has been lagging behind the growth of the coffee culture for several decades. But that could change. “In terms of demographics, [the tea movement] made sense to us from the beginning [in the late 1980s],” he says. “As people grow older, developing an interest in tea is a natural evolution. Once people discover tea, they tend to fall in love with it.” Vendeland, who has a penchant for oolongs, can relate. He fell in love with the ancient beverage after becoming acquainted with it through his professional projects in Hawaii in the 1980s.
In just four years’ time, the growth of the domestic tea industry is projected to nearly double from $7.8 billion in 2010 to $15 billion in 2014, according to Tea Association of the USA.
But locally grown tea will have to find its niche in a market filled with low-cost international competitors. “One challenge when making tea in the United States is that it will require a much higher price point,” says Tao of Tea’s Chawla. Going upscale means using established plants. “Similar to grapes, the quality heavily depends on the age of the plants.”
Perhaps the greatest barriers for Minto Island and other aspiring growers in the United States lie in the harvesting and processing procedures. This is where local tea experts come into play. As Minto Island looks to the future, they will draw upon the knowledge and skills of Oregon’s existing tea culture. Currently, the farm is collaborating with three regional processors to transform fresh leaf into loose-leaf tea.
One key to developing high-quality tea is harvesting the leaves exclusively by hand. Though painstaking, this facilitates the most careful selection of choice new growth, typically the bud or tip and the first three to five leaves, and results in a higher-quality product. Though machines afford a less labor-intensive harvest, they are less selective, which can mean serration of the delicate new growth and harvesting older and less flavorful leaves.
Chamberlain at J-Tea in Eugene says that tea production is analogous to notoriously finicky wine production. Several conditions must be carefully monitored and met before harvesting, including the weather on the day of the harvest and the maturity, size and tenderness of the leaf. “Processing methods are phenomenally important criteria for producing high-quality tea,” he explains. “My goal is to organize the tea processing and production as well as possible.”
Reading Oregon’s leaves
Chamberlain, a Eugene native, learned the intricacies of tea cultivation and processing by living in Taiwan for six years, where he developed close ties with tea farmers and tea masters, and participated in various stages of tea processing. “I realized that the more I learned about tea, oolong specifically, the more effectively I could relate to wholesale customers,” he says. This meant trips high into remote tea mountains and rising before dawn to accompany pickers to the fields.
He emphasizes the importance of producing a high-quality whole-leaf tea, rather than the lower-grade bagged tea that’s pervasive in the U.S. market. “We should focus on producing the best tea that we can here and target the high-end market.”
So far, Chamberlain has produced three batches of Taiwanese-style black teas. “Black tea is the simplest to process,” he explains. “And I’m convinced that people in the Pacific Northwest appreciate a flavor you can taste. We have such a strong coffee culture here.” He describes the final product as a whole twisted-leaf black tea characterized by briskness and rich earthy tones with hints of ruby. When brewed, the tea unfurls into beautiful red-tinged leaves. The wholeness of the leaves distinguishes this tea from typical black tea, often characterized by bits and shreds of leaf.
“We always hoped a specialty tea industry would develop in the United States, similar to the wine industry,” Vendeland recounts. “It’s exciting for me to see someone like Elizabeth, who has such a creative energy, take this on.”
“So far, the history of tea in the United States has been a history of failures,” says John Vendeland.
It’s no easy task—the competition is steep in China, Taiwan, Japan, India and Sri Lanka, where the majority of the world’s tea is grown and where the industry is supported by thousands of years of tea culture and knowledge. “So far, the history of tea in the United States has been a history of failures,” Vendeland says. “Hopefully this is not another one.” Tao of Tea’s Chawla contends that sellers will have to openly distinguish between tea from 600- to 700-year-old plants in China and a U.S.-grown product. “The idea is not to compare. What’s the best tasting tea we can make here in Oregon?” But the old ways can inform the new; Chawla plans to process upcoming tea harvests by hand using traditional methods he learned in Southern India.
Indeed, the learning curve continues. Jenkins is optimistic: “The tea project fits into our business plan, which is direct marketing of local agricultural products. We really feel like there’s a market for tea here.” The farm has propagated its most successful varietals and will plant two more acres of starts in the fall, with plans to gradually expand the tea acreage over the next several years. As Minto Island’s tea plot continues to evolve, this nascent industry could gain stronger footing and transition from an experimental acre to a viable local product. “Our goal is to produce a consistent, high-quality tea for people interested in a unique, Oregon-grown product,” Jenkins says.
Katie Lewis is a Eugene-based freelance writer. Her husband, Josh Chamberlain, owns the Eugene teahouse J-Tea.
Where to Find Oregon-Grown Tea
Minto Island Growers Farm Stand
3394 Brown Island Rd. South
Salem, OR 97302
2778 Friendly St.
Eugene, OR 97405
Tao of Tea
3430 SE Belmont St.
Portland, OR 97214