by Naomi Rosen
Warning: This post will be a bit lengthy since I am backtracking 9 months. I will try to stay on top of happenings with The Great Mississippi Tea Farm and future articles will be much shorter!
Back in December-ish, I happened across the Facebook page for The Great Mississippi Tea Co. I can't even tell you how I got to their page because I can't remember but I am so happy I found them. Here's a little bit of their "About Us" from their webpage that I really loved:
Our hope is to bring about a change in labor practices worldwide and to bring to you and your family a product that will contribute to a good life. In a world filled with pathogens, toxins, and synthetics showing up in our food source, we hope that we can add many happy years to your life through an ethically sustainable, organic product and not something that will reduce the precious time that we have here on Earth with our family and friends.
The Great Mississippi Tea Company, located in Brookhaven, MS, is dedicating 10 acres of Mississippi farm land to tea and we have the unique opportunity to watch a tea garden appear out of thin air. But not without a mountain of work and dedication by Jason McDonald (GMTC), Nigel Melican (Owner of Teacraft and tea growing genius) and countless others that are lending their expertise and labor in the process. I am going to attempt to capture as much of the tea garden creation process as I can. Let's start, shall we?
The Great Mississippi Tea Company (489' above sea level) launched in October 2012 as an experiment. I would invite you to check out their Mission Statement to read more about how they plan to model first world tea farming. While the Southwest area of Mississippi is ideal for tea growing (50+ inches of rainfall a year and tropical temperature ranges) tea is not currently being grown there. Jason McDonald, managing partner of the farm, was impressed with the heartiness and feasibility of growing tea after a visit to the Charleston Tea Plantation (SC) in May 2012. Having witnessed firsthand the kind of damage that a hurricane the size of Katrina can cause, he was on the prowl for a crop that could withstand that kind of weather phenom. 2017 is the current target date for their first flush, and while that does seem like an eternity to many of us die hard tea drinkers, it takes 3-5 years for new tea bushes to mature. Mississippi is a timber producing powerhouse. The Great Mississippi Tea Company is allowing Brookhaven, MS, to diversify its' agricultural offerings by providing employment opportunities. On top of that, they can tap into the emerging agri-tourism trend by encouraging travelers and vacationers to visit the farm. Jason is passionate about tea being a viable crop in Mississippi. "We have a similar climate to tea growing regions in China. We also have Loess soil, which is found in growing regions in Argentina and China. It is an alluvial silt that is extremely productive and is actually categorized as some of the most fertile soil in the world. We have the right amount of rainfall and temperature ranges and we know from experience (Buddy Lee's plants) that bushes that have been around for more than 35 years have withstood temperatures to zero degrees here in 1985." Jason continues, "Our land's natural pH is around a 5.0, which is ideal for tea and the contours of the land are great for drainage. Dr. Guiyhong Bi of Mississippi State University, a native of China, has been interested in tea research here (and has submitted proposals to do so) because of our similarity to Chinese conditions." The initial plan for the farm includes 60,000 plants, many being supplied by a nursery out of North Carolina, spread out over 10 acres.
The ground breaking started in November 2012 with clearing. Since this land also houses cattle, fences had to be erected to keep those guys from trampling the tea. Could you imagine cattle on a caffeine high? In the land clearing process, they were able to bury (compost) quit a bit of the material. Larger logs were hauled off for lumber use. The Great Mississippi Tea Company is dedicated to organic farming processes. In fact, a neighbor of theirs posted a note that read: Jason, This is your neighbor on Wellman Dr SE. I think you need to have a community meeting to answer some questions. I would like to know about Fertilizer and Pesticides used in this tea farm. I have young children and dogs and also well water. Pls respond. Jason graciously responded, and posted his response on Facebook for all to see: I will be using organic and ethically sustainable practices as set out by the USDA Certified Organic Program. The great thing about tea is that no herbicides, fungicides, or pesticides are used. We will be instituting a non-runoff fertigation system that will apply organic fertilizers... So no worries about children or pets because there will be no run off and only non-synthetic 100% organics will be implemented... Tea farming in its very nature is a 100% natural process. Please spread the word.
In addition to the clearing of the land, GPS mapping of the irrigation system was completed, a primary well was drilled, proper sloping and drainage were determined, test crops were planted (lettuces, brocolli, sweet onions, garlic, radishes and english peas), disking was performed (breaking up of soil and weed removal) and they are now actively subsoiling. Jason explained a bit on their Facebook about subsoiling: For those who don't have a clue as to what a hard pan is, over time rain water seeps into the soil and heavier materials sink with it... Somewhere between 12"-24", there is a layer of clay and sand and hard material creating a "rock" layer that cannot be penetrated by the roots of most plants... We think tea would probably break through this layer, but to give added assurance, the subsoiler is dragged through the soil at appropriate depths to break the hard pan. This is allow water and the roots to get below the hard pan when planted... This will protect our plants from drought because the roots will be deep into the soil instead of very shallow.
Next step: Nitrogen rich crops like legumes will be planted to naturally increase levels in the soil (nitrogen speeds the growth of the tea plants). As if Jason doesn't have enough on his plate, throughout this entire process he has been making arrangements for the formal US League of Tea Growers. The USLTG will allow fellow tea growers to exchange ideas and resources and will promote US grown teas and tea tourism. I will write about them, and their World Tea EXPO debut, in a separate post. Needless to say, sitting in on that meeting was like watching the Founding Fathers sign the Declaration of Independence. Maybe not that epic, but a really close second! This is such an exciting time for tea growth in the United States, both agriculturally and culturally. Tea fields in India, Sri Lanka and China are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. Here in the United States, we get to watch what the infancy of tea growing looks like and I choose to support such a wonderful movement. I hope you will join me!