Each month, MSAN will highlight one of the many hard-working producers here in Mississippi making a difference in their communities by committing to natural, sustainable, and regenerative models of agriculture. It’s not just about good food; it’s about good people.
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It’s no secret that Southerners love a cold glass iced tea. Healthy debates about cold-brewing vs. hot and the appropriate level of sweetness will continue for eternity, but when is the last time you thought about the journey of the tea itself from the fields to your glass? Before visiting the Great Mississippi Tea Company (GMTC) in Brookhaven, MS, I had always thought of tea as an exotic product, not something that I normally associate with local, sustainable agriculture. GMTC is out to change that perception, hoping that “farm-to-pitcher” will soon be a reality in Mississippi.
Farmer Jason McDonald’s family has owned this land in Brookhaven for generations. Most recently dominated by timber, the farm was devastated in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina, wiping out 75% of their trees. Searching to diversify production, Jason became interested in tea while visiting the Charleston Tea Plantation, in South Carolina. Tea is a camellia, a plant grown throughout southern Mississippi for its beautiful flowers, requiring high heat, humidity, and acidic soil. “Sounds like home,” Jason thought to himself. And so the idea for the Great Mississippi Tea Company was born.
Knowing little about tea, Jason enlisted the help of Mississippi State University Cooperative Extension and Nigel Melican, a British tea consultant with 25 years experience growing tea on six continents. Together, this team is in the process of converting 11 acres of the farm into tea fields. This can be challenging work. Tea production and harvesting in Asia and Africa often relies on low-wage, harsh labor of fieldworkers. This makes possible the cheap tea we see on our grocery store shelves. An excerpt from GMTC’s mission statement reads: “We at The Great Mississippi Tea Company are setting out on a course to develop a working model for commercial tea farming in the First World as a beacon for the world to implement mechanization and innovative thinking to produce and sell an ethically sustainable crop for the masses while not employing the traditional labor standards so widely used in the industy.” We are grateful to and proud to support all of the farmers working towards a food system where everyone has more control over their lives and receives a fair wage.
GMTC started planting its first tea plants in 2013. As the plants establish themselves, it will take about three years until tea production begins on a commercial scale, with the goal of establishing 180 acres over the next ten years. At 4.5 thousand tea plants per acre, Jason’s employees have been hard at work out in the fields getting the first three acres planted. One consolation is that their work will endure—tea plants are perennials, with many living over 100 years. Weed control can also be a problem when first establishing a field with tea, as the plants are small and a lot of light hits the ground. GMTC has recently procured a small flock of weeder geese that will eat some of the weeds, but leave the tea plants. On a research trip to India and Nepal in April 2015, Jason was able to witness some other techniques that will help sustain the farm. He plans to interplant Chinaberry trees with the tea to provide a dappled shade, since tea leaves can scorch when exposed to prolonged temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. He also learned about some plant-based pest control strtegies. Check out this great article about the challenges to growing tea in the U.S to learn more about the kinds of obstacles GMTC has been encountering.
When the plants mature, GMTC will use machines to harvest the tender young leaves from the plants, with yields approaching 2,000 pounds of tea per acre per year. Leaves are harvested in the morning and immediately leave the farm for processing. With only about a three-hour window before the harvested tea leaves start to lose their vitality, Jason and his partner, David Bromwich, are in the process of building a facility right in downtown Brookhaven. GMTC will start with producing black tea, but will branch out into other varieties as the business grows. Black, green, and white tea are all produced by the same plant, while herbal teas, like camomile and mint, are not true teas like the caffeinated camellias. Nigel and Jason estimate that about 80% of a tea’s character comes from processing. Nigel tells the story of a Sri Lankan tea farm where they typically produced black tea that fetched $1.50 per kilo. With Nigel’s help, they were able to process the same leaves into white tea that fetched $200 per kilo. Processing tea leaves involves multiple steps of dehydration, with traditions and regional techniques going back millennia. Maybe we’ll see more backyard tea growers-processors popping up in our neighborhoods. In fall 2015, GMTC will host Beverly Wainwright to create a line of on-farm hand-processed artisan tea. Read more about Beverly’s experience with tea processing in this interview.
By Robert Raymond, FoodCorps Service Member
Photos by Danny Klimetz