Growing tea in the United States is not a new phenomenon. It ís recorded that tea seeds first entered the U.S. in 1744 and to this day a string of companies have done research to find if there is a market opportunity to develop tea as a crop. The U.S. brand with the most traction is Hawaii Grown Tea, but with the recent announcement of the U.S. League of Tea Growers, by Jason McDonald and Nigel Melican, many other states have come out into the spotlight such as Washington, Oregon, New York, Virginia, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama. In fact, the longest running tea garden is not located in South Carolina, but in Fairhope, Alabama, where Donnie Barrett has patiently been propagating and sharing tea cuttings for around 30 years.
Although the U.S. is not thought to have a tea culture, it has quite the established tea growing culture as hundreds have tried their hand at cultivating their own Camellia sinensis. With this great excitement of an emerging industry also come issues of cultivars, patent protection, and industry infrastructure.
Farmers in the U.S. have a handicap compared to those in developing countries where most of the world’s tea is produced: costs. land, labor, and running a business are much more costly, so growers must make sure they are producing the highest quality and most efficient crop possible to get a higher price in the market. Like wine, terroir is extremely important for Camellia sinensis. Each growing region within the U.S. has its own conditions and optimal tea varieties. These varieties are not one-size-fits-all, and often can take years or decades for growers to breed in their gardens. Variety trials are time and resource-consuming; every potential grower should be aware of this when they enter the business. A plant that grows well in Assam will not grow the same in Hilo, Hawaii – or even Honolulu, Hawaii.
The next issue relating to cultivated varieties is the naming of these varieties, what is commonly known as cultivars. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has made it possible for growers to protect the intellectual property of their cultivated varieties. These patents give 20 years’ of protection, guaranteeing that no other grower can propagate and cultivate that particular cultivar. The patent process is expensive and not the most attractive for this industry because most farms do not experience significant profit from their crops until they are close to 20 years old, so why protect it?
Another option that new growers are seeking is trademarking names for their cultivars. This means that other growers can propagate and cultivate the variety, but they cannot market it as a product of the trademarked cultivar.
Once a grower has established a garden and is harvesting flushes, they will quickly realize the enormous amount of skill and labor that goes into processing tea. Growers in Hawaii have been hand-processing their teas for years, but recently some have invested in developing machine-processing facilities. These facilities increase production capacity significantly, so they find themselves searching for grower partners who can increase the supply of raw materials. It is great, more tea! Unfortunately it complicates the system and demands a complex infrastructure.
Moving forward, growers in the U.S. are wise to collaborate and share ideas in regards to these issues. For instance, Mississippi State University was recently awarded a USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant to build a gene bank to help growers understand the different varieties that are well-suited for climates similar to their own. Growers can help each other understand the branding potential behind the varieties of their own regions to make room in the market for each of the unique flavors. These growing regions will come together to form the infrastructure that is necessary to build healthy business. The future of U.S. Grown tea is bright. If you would like to get involved as a potential grower, merchant, or enthusiast you can sign up for email updates here. If you would like to learn more about my effort to empower independent tea growers around the world to connect with tea lovers you can visit my online marketplace Tealet.
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