Guest Contribution by: Donnie Barrett
The summer of 2020 finds us very busy at the Fairhope Tea Plantation here in south Alabama. We are picking, processing, and packaging tea almost every day. The spring flush was quite plentiful and the summer season is seeing robust growth on the bushes. We have packaged around 120 pounds of green and black tea this season, and will likely continue producing until October. I have traditionally called my last batch of the year “Halloween Green.”
Our plantation, founded in 1979, consists of three different gardens boasting over 61,000 bushes. Two are not pruned or plucked and the bushes are 20-30 feet high. One area near our home is where we closely manage the bushes to produce tea. I always thought I would be planting more, but we have all that we can now maintain.
Tea tourism is working well for us. We charge $10 for a tour, where guests get a cup of tea and a free bare-rooted tea plant. I put small groups on a golf cart and ride them through the tea fields, stopping at points of interest. These are enthusiastically received with our guests coming on a regular basis. We sell most of our tea to these tourists, and are still not shipping tea to outside customers. Because we are getting two requests a week to send tea off in the mail, we may reconsider some day – but for now, no mail orders.
This past year we bought a good-sized tea rolling machine. This has made a great difference in our finished products. As our old, arthritic hands were not doing a good job of hand rolling the plucked leaves, our tea was a bit leafy and did not look like other producers’ finished tea. It was good, but did not have the right “look.” Now it does, and it also concentrates the tea. I still allow a bit of stick in my tea as I think the “wood” flavor is beneficial, whereas some think it means the tea is “cheap.” There is a lot of school of thought on this subject.
Another practice we have adopted is cutting the rows down to about 18 inches high. This is a more modern technique which produces a fatter, juicier bud and more robust growth. We have cut many of our rows down low for this beneficial effect. The downside is that you have to bend over to pick it, which gives one a good backache after an afternoon of plucking. I also like the traditional rows because they are 20- to 25-year-old plants and one gets the feeling of plucking growth from an old bonsai tree.
As I grew up on an agricultural experimental station, I was around research scientists and college professors during my early years. My college studies gave me the ability and interest to experiment with tea craft techniques. After I first visited China in 1984 to learn how to make tea from the fresh leaves, I began trying different processes. This has given our tea farm the knowledge in making very fine, high-quality tea. It was not long ago when a visitor complimented me saying I was a true tea master because I did not buy my knowledge of tea production, but nurtured it with a lifetime of study and experimentation. I was most flattered!
Come see us on our Alabama tea farm. We would love to show you how we make our excellent teas here at Fairhope Tea Plantation!