Chagusaba: Sustainable Tea Production

Tea Garden in Chagusaba Region of Shizuoka Japan

Tea in Shizuoka, by Jose Comessu – CC-BY-3.0

Like many in the tea industry we are always interested in environmental trends or practices which impact the production of the camellia sinensis (tea) plant. While there is significant concern about global warming in many parts of the tea growing world, Japan included, the Japanese have become known for the practice of Chagusaba. This sustainable farming method protects the topsoil  and even enhances it while protecting tea plants from cold weather extremes. It also improves the overall taste and quality of Japanese green tea. This method, native to the Kakegawa region of the Shizuoka Prefecture, about 90 minutes by train from Tokyo has been in existence since the 1600′s and provides balance between the land and the farmers who produce some of the finest green tea in the world.

The Broad Strokes of Chagusaba Tea Production

Chagusaba is a farming method which originated in Shizuoka Prefecture nearby Mt. Fuji, whereby farmers grow native grasses for use in mulching between tea bushes. Specifically, these tall grasses, like the silver pampas grass, are grown alongside tea gardens. During the late fall and winter the grass is cut, dried, and spread between the rows of the tea bushes. The addition of this dried grass provides insulation for the root systems of the plants allowing protection and earlier growth in spring. As the season progresses the grass keeps the weeds down and slowly decomposes, adding nutrients and organic matter to the soil, improving its quality over time. Where fertilizer is used, the grass helps keep fertilizer in place and lessons the ability of rains to erode the topsoil. For all the added work work, tea farmers believe that the Chagusaba practice produces better color, taste, and aroma for their tea.

Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS)

Chagusaba farming practices make use of cut and dried pampas grass.

Silver Pampas Grass used in Chagusaba Farming, By 松岡明芳 – CC-BY-3.0

Japan has seen a significant reduction in its native grasslands over the past 100+ years. It’s estimated that today’s grasslands are 1/30th of what they once were. While the chagusaba practice enhances the soil and helps produce superior green tea for the Shizuoka region, the practice provides substantial added value to the environment. It encourages biodiversity by providing nourishment to the soil and supports growth of many other smaller plants. If not for chagusaba these smaller plants would be crowded out by larger plants that would otherwise take over if not for the annual harvesting of grasses. The environment created in chagusaba supports a significant number of rare plants including the “7 herbs of autumn” and numerous animals that live and find food from among the grasslands. Many of these plants are also important to Buddhist traditions and ceremonies. When the Shizuoka region proposed being designated as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System it stressed the impact of the farming practice on the environment, the economy, and the cultural practices of the region (Kawakatsu). In May 2013 The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization officially designated the Chagusaba farming practice of Kakegawa in Shizuoka Prefecture as a GIAHS site.

As sustainable farming practices become increasingly desired both by farmers and by consumers we are interested in seeing where this practice, and those like it, may be copied and adapted in other parts of world. Closer to home the Chesapeake Bay has struggled for years with excessive nitrogen runoff from poor fertilization practices, excessive or inappropriate use of fertilizer on lawns, and overflow from waste water treatment facilities. Many great organizations are working to improve the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay starting hundreds of miles away in the headwaters which lead to the bay. Upstream the emphasis is on forest restoration with native trees and plants. Closer to the bay work is also being done to create buffers to absorb runoff and change destructive human behaviors. We would love to see increased sustainable farming practices take hold along with homeowner education and improved infrastructure to speed this restoration along. We would love to see increased forest buffers and native plants along the edge of the Chesapeake but we also we wonder if there may also be room for adapted chagusaba practices to aid in improved soil fertility and acting as both a buffer to the Chesapeake.

Sources Cited
Traditional Tea-Grass Integrated System: Shizuoka’s Chagusaba, A globally significant agricultural system and landscape, by Dr. Heita Kawakatsu, May 29, 2013, http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/giahs_assets/Information_Resources_Annexes/Japan_Forum/Traditional_tea_Chagusaba_of_Shizuoka.pdf

GIAHS Propsal, Traditional Tea-Grass Integrated System in Shizuoka, http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/giahs_assets/Sites_annexes/GIAHS-Shizuoka_proposal.pdf

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White Tea – Delicate, Subtle, and Delicious

White tea with downy hairs.

Himalayan White with Downy Hairs from Nepal

White tea can be a real treat, offering delicate and subtle taste, beautiful appearance, and creamy pale yellow liquor. It is produced from the buds and young leaves of the camellia sinensis plant and only lightly processed before steeping in your cup. The sign of a truly fine white tea is the presence of lots of fine white (downy) hairs on the leaf, like the bud-only, Bai Hao Silver Needle. There are also white teas made of bud and one to three of the young leaves. The white hair is where its name comes from. To preserve these hairs, the tea is handled very carefully. The tea is hand plucked. It is withered in the sun to dry and then is further dried in the air, sun, or mechanically to stop oxidation. It is not pan fried, steamed, roasted, or rolled since those methods would destroy the fine hairs.

Delicate Hairs For Self Defense

The camellia sinensis plant typically produces the most hairs on its first buds and new leaves of the season. It is not unusual for plants to have hairy leaves or buds as the hairs serve multiple defense functions for the plant like protecting the buds from sunburn and insects (Evert, 2006). As the leaves get bigger, the hairs fall off. So there is a very small window at the start of the growing season to pick the buds with the most hairs. This means there are very limited quantities of true white tea, and if weather interferes there could be seasons with little to no white tea available.

Origin of White Tea

There is no definitive answer as to when the first white teas were produced. The name silver pekoe starts to appear in the mid-1800′s in English publications referring to a fine black tea with silver hairs. Back in the 1800′s, teas were either black or green. If the tea was steamed, it was green and all other teas were black (Hanson, 1878). Most of these silver pekoe teas came from the Fujian and Zhejang provinces of China. Those provinces are still considered home to the finest of Chinese white tea. China, however, does not have a monopoly on white tea. India, Nepal, Vietnam, and Kenya also produce white teas. As tea farms take hold in Hawaii, they too are making white teas.

White Tea Preparation

White tea normally has a creamy pale yellow liquor like that from the bud-only tea of Bai Hao Silver Needle

White Tea – The bud-only style of Bai Hao Silver Needle and creamy pale yellow liquor.

When preparing white tea, be careful to prepare gently, in the spirit in which it was produced. Boiling water should never be poured on a white tea since it will produce a very bitter brew. It is best to allow the boiling water to cool to between 185-190 degrees Fahrenheit or even cooler before introducing the tea leaves. White tea is also only brewed between 1-3 minutes though it depends on the origin and variety. The flavors of various white teas range from floral to fruity to nutty with all brews being smooth. Most white teas can be infused 3-6 times and not lose their flavor. Since this tea has the lowest amount of oxidation, it brews a very pale yellow cup.

White tea is a variety well worth exploring.

 

Works Cited
Evert, R. F. (2006). Esau’s Plant Anatomy: Meristems, Cells, and Tissues of the Plant Body: Their Structure, Function, and Development, Third Edition. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.

Hanson, R. (1878). A Short Account of Tea and the Tea Trade. London: Whitehead, Morris and Lowe.

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Darjeeling Tea Estates in the News

Darjeeling, India

Darjeeling is in the Northeast of India surrounded by Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh (Public Domain)

We’ve written about how much we love Darjeeling tea in the past. It’s a special region in India from which many distinctive teas originate. Its so distinctive that the European Union now recognizes Darjeeling tea with the mark of Geographic Identification. Unfortunately, the region also struggles with a system not far removed from the colonial plantation system of its recent past.

Recently, news has been surfacing in the west of abandoned plantations and worker starvation. This news isn’t entirely new. It’s been circulating for months in the Indian press but is becoming more widely known, thanks in part to an Associated Press article published in places like The Washington Post and CTV (Canada).

Struggling to Survive

In some Darjeeling district tea gardens like the Red Bank, Budapani, and Dheklapara tea estates, closures have resulted in growing numbers of people dying of starvation, malnutrition, and disease. There are quite a number of stories surfacing about absentee owners of tea plantations having closed up shop and left workers to suffer. Some of these workers are reported to have gone years without pay or regular meals while awaiting the outcome of the legal proceedings needed to reopen estates. In many cases there is a common theme where drought or mismanagement brought about financial hardship and the ensuing years of legal battles to reorganize leave tea garden workers in rural parts of West Bengal to suffer in limbo.

Darjeeling Tea is not from urban areas.

Urban Area of Darejeeling City, India by PP Yoonus, CC BY-SA-3.0

Darjeeling falls in the northern portion of the West Bengal state which borders Nepal, Bangladesh, and Bhutan. A 2012 report by KPMG notes that the state of West Bengal has one of the most densely populated regions in the country, a per capita income lower than the average Indian income, yet is a region experiencing rapid urbanization. The report also identifies a need for significant investment infrastructure, especially mass transportation in order to ensure adequate access to education and healthcare for the poor (KPMG). While those in urban areas are generally doing better, those in rural areas, where the tea farms are often located, face much greater challenges to diversify their opportunities for income and education in part due to lack of roads, markets, communications, and electricity (Khutan, Roy).

The ultimate cause may be a colonial era structure of plantations which needs to be remodeled. However, the near term cause is found in recent rainfall shortages sending businesses into bankruptcy and a legal system that ties up legal proceedings necessary to restart these plantations for many years (Reevell). Allegations of a local government in denial, a court system which can take years or decades to resolve disputes, very low wages, and lack of adequate education and infrastructure in rural areas means there are no easy answers to the situation.

Darjeeling in Perspective

It is worth bearing in mind that tea production in the Darjeeling region enjoyed substantial growth and investment during the British colonial era. Indeed, in the 1830′s one of the most pressing objectives of the Governor of India was to identify the right locations of soil and weather where tea could be grown in order to provide an alternative source from Chinese tea (Varma). Many large tea estates were developed during this time and although the labor practices may not have been perfect at that time, there was growth and investment by the owners of these estates.

While there is substantial opportunity for improvement in India, West Bengal, and Darjeeling, it is worth noting that the United States has a significant head start with the institutions, infrastructure, and laws necessary to improve the situation. India gained independence from the British in 1947 while the United States gained independence in 1776, having over 170 years more “experience” in the development of its laws and institutions. Likewise, the US Department of Labor which sets acceptable labor standards was signed into law March 4th, 1913 by President Taft, or nearly 35 years before India even became an independent nation.

Importance of Relationships in the Tea Business

Tea plucker in a Darjeeling tea garden.

Idyllic Picture of Darjeeling Tea Plantation, by DeviantArt user annanta, CC BY-SA-3.0

All this leads us to the importance of relationships in the tea business. If you delve a bit beyond flavored tea and the ongoing research about health benefits of tea, you find like any business, there are many great things and plenty of opportunities for improvement. Driving improvements in the industry means getting involved; getting to know suppliers, asking questions, understanding that the industry isn’t perfect, and pushing for change. Driving change by being informed, forming strong relationships and making buying decisions that demonstrate what you value in the whole tea product.

There are plenty of responsible plantations in Darjeeling and throughout the tea industry. Being informed and passionate about the industry leads to asking questions, building relationships, and ultimately partnering for change and improvements.

 

Sources Cited

Darjeeling tea estates closures mean hunger, death for abandoned workers, by Patrick Reevell, September 29, 2014, The Associated Press, http://www.ctvnews.ca/business/darjeeling-tea-estates-closures-mean-hunger-death-for-abandoned-workers-1.2029167

Importance of Urban and Social Infrastructure in Economic Growth of Bengal, 2012, by KPMG, http://www.kpmg.com/IN/en/IssuesAndInsights/ArticlesPublications/Documents/Importance-economic-growth-Bengal.pdf

Producing Tea Coolies?: Work, Life and Protest in the Colonial Tea PLantations of Assam, 1830s – 1920s, Nitin Varma, http://edoc.hu-berlin.de/dissertationen/varma-nitin-2011-12-01/PDF/varma.pdf

http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/death-hunger-stalk-indian-tea-estate-workers/2014/09/29/75dda230-47a7-11e4-a4bf-794ab74e90f0_story.html

Rural Livelihood Diversification in West Bengal: Determinants and Constraints, by Dilruba Khatun and B.C. Roy, Agricultural Economics Research Review, Vol. 25(No.1) January-June 2012 pp 115-124, http://ageconsearch.umn.edu/bitstream/126049/2/12-Dilrub.pdf

A new DAWN rises in Darjeeling to save starving tea garden workers, by Ashim Sunam, Darjeeling Times, http://darjeelingtimes.com/a-new-dawn-rises-in-darjeeling-to-save-starving-tea-garden-workers/

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