You would be forgiven for believing that there are no tea plantations in the United States. Aside from China, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya there aren’t any other suitable locations for growing tea right? If you read our earlier blog about where tea is grown you will note that the US does indeed grow some tea, though at very small quantities. That got us thinking… Why is it that American farmers never took up tea? After all, tea does grow at a wide range of elevations and latitudes. Much of the continental US from North Carolina and Tennessee southward lies at about the same latitude of Shizuoka prefecture, which leads Japanese tea producing regions. So why is it that tea isn’t generally produced in the US? Perhaps the most significant reason dates back to an 1897 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in which the author, William Saunders writes “At the lowest estimate, it costs about eight times more to pick one pound of tea in South Carolina than the prices paid for the same service in Asia.” (Saunders, 1897) This one sentence appears over and over as justification for why tea isn’t produced here in America. In short, it’s too expensive to compete with the cost of labor in Asia. A hundred years later this thought process is strikingly familiar, with Asia continuing to produce all kinds of things with dramatically lower labor costs. But is the lower labor rate really the reason or, as the report also suggests, might it have been the shortage of skilled growers and manufacturers was the real stumbling block to getting tea off the ground in the U.S.
At the time of the USDA study there was significant upheaval in the United States where the Civil War was still very much on the minds of the population. The American South, which arguably had the better climate for Tea, was struggling to rebuild, had suffered substantial loss of capital, and struggled to adapt to an economy not based on slavery. Indeed, a report from the Debow’s Review, a widely circulated magazine of the time, published in October 1867, made it quite apparent that landowners felt the freed slaves “have ruined many Southern planters who had but little capital and endeavored to work their plantations on shares.” (Debow, 1867) With the US Agricultural scene adapting to producing crops without slave labor, the idea of introducing a new agricultural product that required manual picking of leaves and a manufacturing process that was still foreign to the US would be laughable.
The current focus by many US consumers on locally grown or raised produce, wine, and cattle might give tea yet another chance in the US economy. There are a number of tea growers in Hawaii producing specialty teas including Black, White, Green, and Oolong varieties. Back on the mainland, there is one commercial operation in South Carolina where tea has been grown and abandoned multiple times since the 1800’s. More recently the US League of Tea Growers has been formed in an attempt to bring together growers from across the country to share knowledge, develop best practices, identify or create cultivars suitable to the U.S., and to promote the U.S. tea industry.
As we close out this blog it’s important to take away that there is tea being grown and produced here in the United States. Over the coming years there may be greater availability of specialty tea products from across the country. Perhaps tea does have a place in the American agricultural economy and perhaps, all those years ago, folks should have more fully read the fateful report for the USDA considering “Dr. Shepard stated that if he were twenty years younger he would plant 500 acres as rapidly as he could procure the plants. This indicated his faith in tea raising as a profitable industry.” (Saunders, 1897)
What do you think? Is there a place for American produced teas? If they were more expensive, yet locally produced from a farm you could visit, would you seek them out?
Debow, J. D. (1867, October). Agricultural, commercial, industrial progres and resources. Debow’s Review.
Saunders, W. (1897). An Experiment in Tea Culture, A Report on the Gardens of Dr. Charles U. Shephard, Pinehurst, S.C. Washington: United States Department of Agriculture, Division of Gardens and Grounds.