Tea farmers and researchers at UC Davis symposium discuss future of tea
The kettle hisses and Katharine Burnett picks it up and pours the steaming water into a tiny, dark pot full of earthy-smelling leaves. After she’s filled it to the brim, she puts the lid back on, letting the hot tea spill over the sides and vanish into the raised wooden tray on her desk. As she waits for the pu-erh to steep, Burnett describes her hope for the initiative to encourage a burgeoning tea industry in California.
Burnet, an associate professor of Chinese art history and founding director of the Global Tea Initiative, and other faculty decided to start a research cluster around tea in 2012. Provost Ralph Hexter encouraged them to launch the initiative by holding a symposium. It was a great success among industry professionals, academics and enthusiasts alike, boasting attendance in the hundreds in its first year. This year, the Global Tea Initiative decided to focus on tea sustainability and preservation heading into the future.
Tea, also known as Camellia sinensis, is not a plant traditionally grown in California. However, with small farms like Golden Feather Tea producing high-quality tea in the Sierra foothills and the growing market value of tea in the United States, more people are becoming interested in the idea.
“I think most people kind of all chuckle when we talk about growing tea in California, they just assume tea isn’t going to grow here in California,” said Jeffrey Dahlberg, the director of the Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center. “Now it’s kind of the same attitude that happened when people started talking about growing blueberries here.”
Blueberries and tea plants actually share several characteristics, Dahlberg said. They both need acidic soil, originate from humid climates and are high value crops. Today, thousands of acres of blueberries grow in California, where many farmers believed it would be impossible for them to thrive.
Two tea plant varieties, or cultivars, have grown at the Kearney Center since the ‘60s, when Lipton approached the researchers to study tea growth in California. However, the project ended a decade later. Now Dahlberg and his colleagues have taken cuttings to clone the plants and start experiments anew, hoping to figure out the best conditions for them to thrive in the Central Valley.
Jacquelyn Gervay-Hague, a professor of chemistry at UC Davis, thinks that microbes may be key to growing tea. Gervay-Hague spoke at the symposium about the relationship between tea microbes and the chemicals they produce, called glycolipids, that can modulate the human immune system. Though the project only began recently, analyses show that microbes are cultivar-specific. In other words, different varieties have different microbes associated with them. If the presence of specific microbes in the soil helps tea plants grow, and these microbes are identified, then synthetic communities could be mixed and used as a farming application.
“So, at a very simplistic view, if it takes years and years and years for the natural migration of microbes, if we can identify what those microbes should be, perhaps we can do it that much faster,” Gervay-Hague said. “Perhaps we don’t have to wait for them to travel, we could introduce them right at the time of planting and facilitate the growing of tea.”
On the other hand, perhaps the plant could be altered rather than the habitat. Nigel Melican, a research scientist and the managing director of Teacraft Ltd. in England, explained that American tea plants have old genetics. The USDA does not allow living plant material in, while countries breeding new varieties are careful not to let them out. Selective and transgenic tea breeding is necessary for local quality and adaptation.
“We have genomes adapted to cold and others adapted to heat, but recent weather patterns in the U.S. are making climate both hotter in summer and colder in winter — and rapid fluctuations between the two in spring and fall,” Melican said. “[We] need new genetics to cope with this. Drops in annual precipitation and even monthly distribution of rainfall predisposes more drought times — we need better drought-tolerant plants and, ironically, more waterlogging tolerance for times when flooding occurs.”
Melican, Gervay-Hague and Dahlberg all agree that it’s the small-scale specialty tea farms that show the most promise for California. Well-established tea industries overseas produce quantities we can’t match at low prices. Large, standardized farms are also undesirable since tea doesn’t grow as well in a monoculture. Polycultures are both environmentally friendly (a plus in California) and improve quality.
“Between the birds, the bees, the insects, the worms, the microbes that are enriched by this diversity of plantings, the tea flavor is actually better,” Burnett said. “The number of quality nutrients actually increases. So the quality of the leaf — of the cup — actually is better if it’s ecologically farmed.”
The tea business in the US is growing by 10 to 15 percent every year. The market for specialty tea, including environmentally conscious, ecological and artisanal teas, among others, is also growing. Burnett believes that with a network of small, uniquely Californian tea farms, the state could become a destination for tea drinkers and ecotourists.
An acquaintance and highly regarded food and beverage expert told Burnett at the end of the tea symposium that it reminded him of the start of the wine industry in California 50 years ago. People are striving against the odds with the same enthusiasm as they did back then. Hopefully that bodes well for the scientists, farmers and tea lovers who are working together to make tea a new tradition.
“We are answering a need, a distinct need, and Davis is the right place for this to happen because we are the most comprehensive of all the UC campuses,” Burnett said. “Which means [with] the expertise that our research scholars have to offer across the disciplines and together, through trans-disciplinary research, we can ask not only new questions, but we can ask new kinds of new questions and create new kinds of new knowledge that would not be possible, literally, anywhere else.”
Written by: Kira Burnett — firstname.lastname@example.org