In the tea business, Fair Trade and Organic certification get thrown around a lot. I won’t speak to India or Japan, but after working with Chinese tea farmers for several year, I have some insights on these labels. First, let me say that they are a step in the right direction.
The farmers of Dragonwell village and of Laoshan village produce some of the best green tea in the world. Tea is so regionally specific that people are interested in leaves picked at a specific altitude on the specific side of individual mountains. The best Dragonwell comes from an area no bigger than a few football fields. The land where the best tea grows can be grouped into two main categories: former holdings from gentry estates, and common land. Both common land and the gentry estates were divided up after the Communist revolution in China. They were communes until the 1980’s and the opening of the economy. With the opening of the economy, land was privatized. The land was distributed in very small plots to the farmers whose ancestry proved that they had been living on the land and working the land, either outside of property laws or under the indentured servitude of a gentry land owner. Of course, each noble had many peasants farming for them, meaning that when it came time to divide it all up, everybody got less than they would have liked.
With that history in mind, let us return to those tiny areas that produce the most sought-after tea. The land equivalent to two football fields is further divided into 15-20 family plots. Each family cultivates tea independently, helping their neighbors at harvest time. Big plantations have been able to buy up family plots on edges of what is considered the best growing region, but farmers lucky enough to own a piece of Lion’s Peak in Dragonwell are not going to give it up. Because of this, the best tea in the world comes from very small farms.
These farms rarely have internet access, or land lines. The farmers usually sell informally to whomever takes the trek into their village. Tea that makes it to America for general consumption comes from bigger plantations that work with export brokers. The resources backing the big farms often include larger foreign tea companies with exclusivity contracts. It is worth these companies’ money to pay for Fair Trade and Organic certification. It is both out of reach and a waste of resources for the small specialty farmers to gain such certification.
All the products I have come to offer are a result of being fortunate enough to be introduced to the small farmers. I came first to China as an academic researcher, not a business man. Because of this, I have been able to gain access to areas that have never seen their teas exported. Now, as a business owner, I am lucky enough to have the goodwill and trust of our partner farmers, whose generosity allows some of the best tea in the world to be enjoyed outside of China.
While none of the teas are certified, they meet the standards of organic and fair trade production. Tea has the quality of absorbing whatever flavors are introduced to it. Tea growing near pine trees tastes cooling. Tea fertilized with soybeans tastes bean-like. All of these are part of the unique terroir of a region or a single family’s farm. None of the farmers I know would dare jeopardize the integrity of their very expensive crop with chemicals. Instead of pesticides and fertilizer, they grow rows of other crops near their tea to attract insects, and then mulch the crops as fertilizer at the end of the harvest season. Otherwise, the tea leaves are picked by farmers in the wild, foraged from ancient tea trees that are naturally resistant to insects, and grow in soil that is the result of a balanced and uncultivated ecosystem.
The reputation of the tea that our partners produce ensures a fair trade system. High quality tea can sell for hundreds of dollars a pound. Each family works as a unit to harvest the valuable crop, and do not hire wages workers. They enjoy the substantial income of selling high end teas. Most of the families that we work with have at least one car, and clean modern houses big enough for everyone to have their own rooms and space. Some families were even sending their kids to school abroad. These families are excited to be working with Verdant Tea, because for the first time, they are able to sell their products in large batches directly without working through buyers. The farmer’s cut from tea sold through Verdant tea is up to 1000% higher than through many larger companies.
While certification is a good thing, it is almost irrelevant when dealing with such high-end small production teas. I feel that it is more important to communicate the stories of the individual farmers, and the lives impacted by the purchase of tea. With this in mind, I am working to gather as many pictures, videos and testimonials from farmers as I can.