Any product starts with its raw materials, and tea is no exception. The best land, water and air come together to make the very best teas in the world. For Chinese teas, each of these components carry their own costs and risks, all of which affect the final price of your tea.
In the first installment of this series on Transparency in the Tea Industry, we promised to pull back the curtain and explain the complex issues, industry practices and international business realities that all affect the final retail price of your cup of tea. To truly understand, we must now dive in and tease apart these first basic variables of land, water and air.
The land contributes a unique flavor through the mineral content of the soil, and the elevation. This, along with influence from the weather and competing vegetation, are part of a tea’s terroir: the unique flavors that come only from where it is grown, rather than varietal or processing style.
How does this work? Minerals are taken up into the plant as it grows. Only clean land with the right mineral composition can contribute to quality tea. High elevations and plots nestled in the right micro-climates like Laoshan subject tea to the perfect temperature cycles and the right amount of sunlight, helping the plant grow at just the right speed to maintain as much of its natural sugars as possible before picking. These perfect climates allow farmers to produce tea without bitterness, full of sweet flavor and nuance.
Land Competition: Tourism, Land Leases, Buy Outs
It is no surprise that perfectly clean, high elevation land with a balanced solid composition is not a common commodity. This land is far more expensive than land used to grow any other crop imaginable, as tea-growing land is also often in prime potential areas for environmental tourism development.
The important thing to understand about land ownership in China is that it works very differently than what many of us are used to. As a communist country, land cannot officially be “owned” by private individuals. Technically, the government holds ownership to all land, and “leases” plots to the occupant. For residential properties, this lease extends for 70 years. At the end of the lease, the owner is required to reapply for the land, and submit a land ownership transfer fee.
This means that you can never have multi-generational farms where children inherit land that is fully paid off. In addition to property taxes, each generation must save money to re-lease their family’s land. As government officials get offers from real estate developers for the same land, those renewal fees can be quite high, as kickbacks are often granted to local officials who refuse renewal in order to free up plots for buyouts and development.
The most morally repulsive example of this odd law in action is when American tea companies actually partner with local government officials to buy up tea farms at the end of lease terms, displacing multi-generational family farmers and turning them in to wage workers. This is happening more and more in the lesser known tea growing regions, making the most famous growing regions extremely protective.
The national government in China puts protections on areas that they deem culturally important, like Mt. Ailao National Forest Preserve, or Shi Feng peak of Dragonwell. While this protects certain critical regions, it creates an unfair disadvantage for lesser known tea villages and makes it even harder for new innovation to take a foothold before being consolidated by large-scale operations. A developing tea region like Laoshan faces a looming timeline – new regions must race to establish themselves as worthy of protection or risk consolidation into large scale factory farms or redevelopment for an ever-growing population of residents and tourists.
While the short term gain for the consumer in cutting land costs by buying up plots seems appealing, the long term costs will be higher. Large factory farms sacrifice biodiversity, rely on heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers, and push the land too far with increased yield. Eventually, the land is depleted, reducing the overall acreage available to farm and over time, driving up prices to higher levels for lower quality product.
Taxes and fees are not the only upkeep cost of high quality land. Any tea farmer thinking about the long term success of their land practices crop rotation, sometimes in truly innovative ways. Because the land is so important for good tea, tea farmers must respect that land by growing tea only for a number of years before cutting back the tea plants and letting the land lie fallow to rest and recover.
In Laoshan Village, this has true consequences for yield. The tea is allowed to grow for 5-8 years before being cut back completely. The tea is not picked again for at least 3 years. This means that 30% of the time, land is not producing at its full capacity. This translates to 30% less potential yield, and therefore 30% higher cost of production per pound simply by ensuring long term success. Any family farmer must to practice crop rotation like this in order to succeed.
Contrast this model with an investor-held factory farm. Because the farm is obligated to make profit beyond operating cost to pay back the financing for land acquisition and equipment, crop yield is pushed much further, usually by introducing synthetic fertilizers to the land as a “band-aid” fix for the depleted nutrients. Short term, yields are up and cost per pound is down, but quality suffers when the tea is absorbing synthetic fertilizer flavor instead of the mineral flavor of the natural soil. In the end, the land will still be depleted, but recovery could take decades, endangering the future of our tea.
Water is a truly precious resource. More and more scarce on the global stage, clean fresh water is a critical part of quality tea. The best water to feed tea plants come from nearby natural springs. With these, the water is unpolluted, and carries minerals that the tea plants absorb. These minerals contribute to the taste of the tea.
In China, population growth, the encroachment of cities, and the ever-growing Western deserts makes water more and more difficult to come by. Generations ago, tea farmers didn’t need to worry about water as much as today. The mountain villages that grow tea drank from clean deep springs, and watered their crops whenever they needed to. Now, in villages like Dragonwell and Laoshan, both famous for their spring water, farmers pay for piped municipal water to drink in their homes. Why? To conserve the spring water for the tea.
So precious is that clean and pure water that farmers sacrifice drinking from the springs themselves to keep their tea healthy. In Dragonwell and Laoshan, this generation is the very first to pay for municipal water for their homes to save the natural resource of their village for the tea. This adds to the cost of the final product not only through municipal water costs, but through the costs of managing the local watershed through reservoirs and through investing in testing equipment to make sure that spring water stays clean, pure and available whenever it’s needed.
Air is an indirect resource that contributes to the cost of tea in more and more meaningful ways. China is deep in its own industrial revolution. Pollution is the consequence of coal, car exhaust, and manufacturing a majority of consumable goods for the whole world, with Chinese air polluted at levels considered toxic by most health authorities. A week in Beijing can cause major respiratory problems for vulnerable individuals.
Luckily for tea, China is a big country with mountain ranges, air currents and oceans that direct the air flow, creating clean sanctuaries untouched by industrial expansion so far. However, not every growing region is equally protected.
Case Study: Air Pollution and Dragonwell Green Tea
Dragonwell, for example is within 20 miles of downtown Hangzhou. Dragonwell is luckily protected by several mountains that break the air flow and create a clean oasis around Shi Feng, but tea planted closer to the city like West Lake (Xi Hu) Dragonwell is generally not safe to drink. Take a trip to Dragonwell in summer and as you drive up the mountain or climb the hiking trails through the bamboo forest preserve, the leaves are caked orange with air pollution. After the first two peaks, the leaves are still beautiful and green.
Mrs. Li of Dragonwell picks in her clean, remote Shi Feng plots, and yet she only picks four times a year and only in early spring. She sees the summer leaves closer to Hangzhou and worries that the heavier summer air pollution might effect even her tea leaves some day soon. She would rather play it safe and only pick what she knows is pure and clean.
Dragonwell is only one of thousands of villages affected by encroaching pollution. The cost over the next few decades will be astronomical in lost yield. The clean and remote growing regions will become more and more precious. Areas with ideal micro-climates like Laoshan or distant regions like Xishuangbanna will become more and more desirable, ultimately driving up the cost and price of high quality Chinese tea.
Land, Air & Water: You Get What You Pay For
Tea is an incredible plant- its final taste is truly a reflection of our relationship to the land. Only ideal air, land and water will yield quality tea. The difference is there to taste. Does it cost significantly more money in the short term to procure teas produced in pure and clean conditions? Of course it does. However, the long terms costs of ignoring land, water and air in tea producing regions are much worse. Supporting unsustainable farming will reduce available land to produce tea over time. If nothing changes, over time, clean high quality tea will become less and less common, and more and more expensive. And like any food and drink, there are long term health costs associated with consuming something that is not clean.
If we support farming that values the raw materials of tea, sustainable techniques will become more lucrative and more widely practiced. Over time, this could increase the relative supply of high quality tea while and providing the incentive necessary to protect those growing regions. In turn, over time this could allow prices to stay lower, while allowing all of us to stay healthier and enjoy each cup of tea more.
Trust and Real Partnership in the Tea Industry
Only clean tea has nuanced and interesting taste. Only clean tea is worth paying for at all. So, how do you know when you are buying tea that is “worth it” in terms of raw materials? The only sure measure we have found is to buy from people who have a reason to provide high quality tea on healthy land with clean water and air.
Factory farms don’t have that motivation. Whether they are owned by domestic business men or international interests, factory farms’ investors are looking for 5-10 year return before divesting. To do this, factory farms need short term gain, which is easiest to achieve through high yield and compelling branding. This means sacrificing for the greatest profit and yield in the short term rather than building for the future of the land and surrounding community.
Only small family farmers who intend to keep their land and pass on the business to their children have a true economic incentive to produce tea of a quality worth drinking. Only a small family farm will sacrifice short term gain for long term benefit.
This is why it is so important to know where your tea comes from. Only understanding the source can give you an idea of what went in to the leaves you steep. The precious, dwindling commodity of natural resources that make up tea’s raw material are worth respecting. There are no shortcuts to good air, water and land. When they come together so beautifully, it makes sense that their scarcity contributes to the cost of a cup of tea.
Painting the big picture….
The next article in this series will be focusing on the critical step of labor and production. We’ll be looking at case studies on how long it takes to make a pound of tea, what goes int each process and how that affects the cost of different types of tea. Raw materials are only the first step on a long chain of production that must remain unbroken for the perfect cup.