The Lunar New Year celebration is always a time of year when we reflect on the family side of small family tea farming.
As all of our partners in China take a break from their fields and workshops to celebrate with their extended families, we are reminded of the strengths of true family farming, and of the honor it is to represent the work of such passionate family growers.
We believe that the best teas in the world comes from small family farmers. While different agricultural models each offer this own benefits, in tea, only the family business model that our partners champion can spur responsible clean growing techniques, innovation and improvement, and a sustainable living for the people that make tea farming their life. Through its unique model and particular strengths, family farming yields not only more sustainable tea, but better flavor, texture and aroma at prices that cannot be matched by big brands.
The small farmer and master craftsman is a concept already widely acknowledged in wine, coffee, chocolate, and even spirits. Yet the tea industry is still coming around to responsibility in sourcing and forging deep connections with growers. The reasons for this are diverse, complex, and not helped by the fact that the most diverse supply of tea in the world comes from China, which has only relatively recently opened its borders to trade; new business models are still catching up.
The problem is the secrecy that so many suppliers hide behind in their sourcing. This secrecy allows bigger factory operations, exporters, and brokers to co-opt the term small family farming and use it for marketing instead of as a true designation. There is so much complexity behind sourcing that it is hard for a consumer to get to the truth.
Our goal here is to explore what the agricultural model of small family farming in China really looks like, outline what makes it an important and unique economic model especially well-suited to tea, and finally, develop a set of criteria you can use to be sure the tea you buy is the real deal rather than empty buzzwords and marketing.
above, Liu “Niu Niu” Jiaqi shows off her family’s fresh picked Laoshan tea // image courtesy of the He Family
With this in mind – what are the central tenets of the small family tea farm economic and agricultural model?
When we talk about small family farming, these three tenets are the definition we have in mind and also the ultimate guiding principles behind the decisions we make.
The people who pick and finish their tea
are also the ones that own the land they cultivate.
The credit for the picking and finishing follows the tea all the way to the consumer
without a broker or a middleman obscuring the source or taking credit.
The growers have an active role in setting their collections and prices
instead of being bargained down by middlemen looking for a bigger cut.
This model is important, especially in the world of Chinese tea. The concept is one worth advocating, championing, and protecting, and not just because of ideas of social justice, labor practices, and fair trade. As an agricultural model, family farming offers a variety of real and concrete advantages to every party involved.
This obvious-seeming principal is the single most important influencing factor in quality tea.
Before you look for elevation, picking date, certifications, grades etc, look to see if the tea is being picked and finished by people planning to pass on their land and business to the next generation.
When people plan to pass their land down. farmers are dis-incentivized to use pesticide. While pesticides might be a short term solution to increase yield, quality drops over years of use, and in an age where pricing for commodity tea is a race to the bottom, no small family farmer wants to pass on a commodity operation. Quality and reputation are the only ways to build a sustainable price for their tea and a sustainable income for the next generation.
Why does pesticide use lower tea quality? Most immediately, the people grading tea at competitions can taste pesticide residue, and there is a major movement in China to return to organic whenever possible. Educated consumers won’t pay a premium for tea contaminated with the bitter acrid texture that sits on the sides of the tongue left by conventional pesticides.
Second, the volatile aromatic compounds in tea are produced by the plant to ward off insects. After years without any challenge or hardship for the plant, the production of the compounds that contribute to flavor and aroma drop off, yielding more bland simple tasting tea.
Finally, pesticides allow for an irresponsible clear-cut style of agriculture. A natural environment for birds is critical for tea farms that do not use pesticides, because birds are the biggest predators for insects. Because of this, leaving other native plants and tree cover is rewarded with better tea and yields. Biodiversity helps the soil maintain more even nutrition and gives the plant more challenges from competitor plants, forcing it to become more flavorful in response.
All of these pesticide-free growing techniques like biodiverse planting may reduce yields in the short term, but they increase quality and the resilience of the plants over the years.
Responsible agriculture is a way of building “equity” to pass on to your children when it is time for them to take over the family business. When reward and payoff is calculated on a generational scale instead of a quarterly one, it is possible to make business decisions that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to justify.
All of our partners in China inherited their tea business from their parents and grandparents, enjoying the work of past generations, and think of preserving and improving this work for their children in every decision they make.
above-right: Mrs. Li shares her Dragonwell tea with her daughter and granddaughter
above-left: a spider’s web in the Liu Family’s fields in Longjuan
Agriculture is not a textbook science. In tea, every plot of land is different, every season brings new challenges, and every day brings new variables in finishing. To respond to these evolving challenges and succeed takes the accumulated wisdom of a lifetime. A factory farm can generally only acquire this wisdom by compelling an expert to oversee production for a big paycheck.
A small family operation ensures that skills accumulated over one lifetime can be passed on to the next generation and improved upon, going back hundreds of years in some cases. When everyone participating in production has generations of experience at their disposal, we all benefit.
A factory farm can’t compete on this front, because most cannot afford a world class expert to fill every position. Even with the assistance of a few technical masters, large operations must rely on machines and policy routine to fill in the rest. A small farm has the opportunity to adjust every tiny batch to match the humidity, temperature, leaf thickness, and more, ensuring that every time they make tea, that tea is the best it can possibly be.
China is truly unique in tea agriculture since it was only in the last century that large land holdings were broken up by the communist revolution. This lead to several decades of communal farming, followed by land reform, where families who had traditionally farmed in an area owned by a local lord or a temple were granted ownership of a plot based both on the size of their family and their contributions to helping grow the local economy during the commune days.
These 10-15 acre plots of land awarded to individual families have been preserved in many tea growing regions, and form the basis of many local economies. Since opening up to capitalism, the drive to consolidate farms has been swift and relentless, but only in the low elevation flatland regions. The best high mountain plots where tea is hand-picked and hand-finished have largely resisted buyouts.
The high elevation, rocky soil, clean spring water, cool weather and misty mornings of high mountain plots make for the best tea. However, these mountain plots are impossible to get machines up for mechanized harvesting, and most are too patchwork to acquire in bulk to form a large plantation.
This meant that in the 90’s when buyouts were happening, these plots were generally not on the radar for factory farming. By the mid-2000’s when Chinese consumers were buying more and more high end tea and driving up prices, it was too late for factory farm acquisitions, because families still holding prime tea growing land weren’t going to give it up when prices could finally support a comfortable living. This means that for the most part, the large brands still do not have access to the highest levels of tea unless they buy from farmers that own their own plots.
above: tea plants grown on steep and rocky stopes above the Li Family’s home in Tongmu, Wuyishan
Starting a farm is a huge capital investment. For a new business venture to start a tea farm in China, they’d need to acquire land, build out workshops, hire workers, and plant seedlings that may not be ready to harvest for several years, all the while keeping the lights on. Even starting with just a workshop and purchasing fresh leaves from neighboring factory operations has enormous start up costs. Operating on this scale requires bank loans or investors, and once you have bank loans and investors, you have an incredible pressure to “succeed” at any cost.
To keep paying your loan or to satisfy investors that might have a majority stake, you need to turn a profit quickly. Often, this requires cutting corners on quality to save money or raising prices enormously. Most big brands opt for the first route, mechanizing picking and finishing, while using synthetic fertilizer and pesticide to increase yield. Some will attempt to keep basic agricultural standards and labor practices, but pump money into advertising and and brand management to help them justify the high prices needed to maintain profitable margins.
A family farm is at a huge advantage here over an incorporated tea business. To start, families are going to own their land already. No initial investment is needed there. This land has likely been farmed by the same family going back generations, with official property ownership recognized during land reform policies that happened just within this generation. A family with a tradition of tea farming likely already has a workshop built by a past generation. Equipment needs are less intensive when hand picking and finishing, and any machinery was likely acquired with savings from a generation back.
Usually, everyone working on a small family farm is related, or if help is needed during a really busy harvest time, neighbors will come assist either for a labor exchange or for a daily fee. This means that there is no huge ballooning cost to keep the farm operating because there is no huge labor force. In a small farm model, many grow much of their own food and already own their homes. There is usually some flexibility to have leaner years when needed as long as it evens out over time. Most of our partners long-term financial goals are decade long projects like saving for their kids college education, or saving to build their kids their own home.
Essentially, there is already enough capital accumulated on a small farm to run it efficiently without debt.
What this translates to is the freedom to pursue long term goals, increasing quality. This is the same as building equity, even when the short term result is lower yield.
Small family farmers can afford to deliver quality at levels that a factory operation could never hope to attain, all for a very competitive price. The economics of the multi-generational small scale farm translate to huge benefits for tea lovers worldwide who are willing and able to buy from true small family operations.
right: Ben Shan tea bushes planted by Master Zhang’s grandparents
left: the Liu Family grows vegetables in the space between their family home and tea workshop
We’ve talked about the advantages of family-organized farming in the abstract, but let’s see it in practice. Below are just a couple examples of how the economic model plays out for some of our partners.
He Family: Laoshan Village, Shandong
Mr. He inherited his farm from his father, and he now has two daughters and a granddaughter.
Tea is actually very new to Laoshan, making multi-generational farms still relatively rare. Laoshan is a holy mountain for Taoists, and legend has it that Taoist monks cultivated a few tea bushes in their temple courtyard brought back from Dragonwell hundreds of years earlier. With care and years of growth, these tea plants adapted to the cold northern climatel.
After the communist revolution, the government found out that tea adapted to the cold climate was growing in Laoshan and worked to introduce it for widespread cultivation without widespread success. Former monks were able to “steal” back a few of their original plants and gave them to a handful of villagers, including Mr. He’s father. He was one of the first people to get tea to grow in the rock foothills of Laoshan on his family’s traditional plot.
Mr. He inherited an established tea farm from his father, but has worked his whole life to pioneer techniques to refine Laoshan Tea. He talks about how rough around the edges the tea was in the early days and how much more refined, sweet and elegant it is now.
His goal is to help the village catch up in terms of technical skills with the tremendous growing conditions and soil so that Laoshan can become as famous as Dragonwell. Over the years he has developed techniques for making Laoshan black tea and oolong, all while helping the entire region stay committed to traditional chemical-free farming.
Mr. He sent both of his daughters to college, and now his eldest daughter Qingqing is learning all the finishing techniques, helping her father in the workshop after every harvest while running a tea shop in Laoshan to expose her family’s tea to more people. Qingqing’s young daughter Jiaqi is only in kindergarten but already learning to taste tea and watching her grandfather in the workshop.
The He family has built a family business that raises up the whole region, helping their neighbors convert from farming potatoes and soybeans to growing tea. Because they are used to hard work, they have been able to save up to invest in their workshop, making it big enough for the whole extended family to form a cooperative and use together. Every harvest brings new innovation, and continually sweeter and more nuanced flavor that places it for us in the top tier as some of the best tea in China.
Contrast this with the factory operations in Shandong.
When Laoshan tea was on the rise, gaining fame and winning awards, wealthy investors took notice and started buying up flat, easy to farm plots. Unfortunately for them, Laoshan is very small, very rocky, and not full of people willing to sell the land they’ve been living on for generations. However, they were successful in acquiring large fields in nearby Rizhao.
These fields are not surrounded by national mountain parkland like Laoshan, which exposes tea fields to Rizhao pollution. In the summer, they get very hot and need to be sprayed for insects. Yet, investors persisted, building their brands as premium brands, partnering with luxury teahouses in Qingdao, Huangdao, Rizhao and beyond, and acquiring through connections the licenses necessary for export. Today, much of the Laoshan tea that you come across out there is from Rizhao, since real Laoshan tea is so limited and consumed mostly in the neighboring city of Qingdao.
The He family’ three generations of hard work and well-situated plot allows them to produce tea that puts imitations to shame. Without big brands and layers of brokers taking a cut, they are able to deliver their quality at a price that is competitive, keeping real Laoshan tea on top of the market and helping build the whole region’s reputation.
the Li Family: Tongmu + Wuyishan Ecological Preserve, Fujian
Wuyishan is one of the most famous growing regions for tea in the world. In many ways, it is the opposite of Laoshan’s story.
Wuyishan has been well-known for hundreds of years, so the critical dynamic for small family farmers in Wuyishan isn’t establishing the region’s reputation. Instead, family farmers are challenged to protect the market from fakes that sell under Wuyi’s name, stand out at local competitions through mastery of finished and technique, and manage biodiversity in their fields.
Li Xiangxi, her brother, and her cousin inherited a plot of well-established tea bushes for oolong craft within the Wuyishan Ecological Preserve along with the family’s ancestral home within Tongmu where wild tea grows for making Jin Jun Mei and other black tea.
These two unbelievably prime plots of land could never be acquired by large workshops, as no farmer so well-situated would be willing to sell.
Together, the Li family’s youngest generation is able to divide the labor of running the family business between them and their aunts, uncles and cousins. Li Xiangxi is collaborating with her uncle to establish the Yangxian Tea Institute to serve as a center for Wuyi tea culture, making her family prime ambassadors when visiting government officials want to see Wuyi tea firsthand. Her brother and cousin each lead up the family’s tea plots, one wild-harvesting black tea and the other tending to old-growth Shui Xian, and other unique cultivars planted a generation back or more.
Together, the Li Family has leveraged the incredible luck of the land they were left by their parents into building a name for their family. As their family gains greater respect, they are able to afford more time to hand-fire all their teas, allow more of their plantings to grow wild and untended, and even experiment with new techniques like pressing aged teas into cakes.
The resilience of small family farming is especially critical in Wuyishan, as the demand for Wuyi teas has risen so much that outside investment pours in from all over the world to acquire land when it becomes available.
Even though the Wuyi government outlawed any new planting of tea within the Wuyi Ecological Preserve after 2008 to try to preserve the majority of natural forest cover, outside firms came in anyways, bought out land and planted recklessly. In 2018, the government finally fought back, coming in and ripping out every tea bush planted illegally.
The Li Family, and any smaller farmers in the area were secure because their plantings were established generations ago, and their families had preserved the natural evergreen and bamboo forest cover around their tea bushes to give birds a place to live. The birds in turn help keep the insect population in check.
How have big brands responded? Since they haven’t been able to buy plots from farmers in the prized Wuyi Ecological Preserve, instead they’ve purchased “signage rights,” paying farmers to allow them to put up signs advertising that the tea planted in a given plot was owned by big brands. This allows the big factory plantations to grow tea using unsustainable techniques in remote low elevation regions while still taking their clients (often foreign buyers) to their signs in Wuyishan for photo ops posing in someone else’s tea grove.
It takes a determination, resilience, and the accumulated capital of a multi-generational tea family like the Li Family to fight back. Li Xiangxi’s tea institute exposes these instances of fraud, while her brother and cousin’s masterful finishing and oolong techniques win the family awards at blind-judged competitions where the big brands can’t buy a gold medal.
The Li family is confident that the quality they have to offer will speak for itself over time. They can’t sell at prices as low as machine-harvested tea from outside Wuyishan, but that is not their goal. Their goal is to help the market see the startling difference in quality and come to value the sustainable, biodiverse growing techniques and hand-finishing for which they are know.
Luckily, the fame and demand for their tea gives them the time and the voice to make that change, all while continuing to invest in their workshop and in protecting the old tree stock for the next generation.
No matter the region, small family farmers are able to adapt, improve and grow in ways that the large operations cannot. Whether it is the grit and determination of the He Family in Laoshan making a name for the region, or the fierce Li Family fighting to protect what makes Wuyishan tea famous, these are the families who are making a future not just for their children, but for the tea industry itself.
These are just two examples. If you want to see how family farming creates a unique and special situation across China, read about Master Zhang’s work in bringing Original Ecological Preserve designation, biodiversity and craftsmanship to Daping Village, or Huang Ruiguang’s leadership in Fenghuang, or the Dongsa Cooperative’s 1st generation investment in tea craft for their children and grandchildren.
All across China,the tea industry is energized by the voices and passion of people like our partners. The only thing holding back a bright future for sustainable high quality tea is the difficulty in in finding and connecting with small family growers.
Because China so recently opened up to the world, and the economy there is growing and adapting so quickly that there is still a heavy reliance on brokers and exporters complete with sales teams, fancy offices and logistics branches to get their tea cleared for export and off to world markets. The overhead of these organizations does not incentivize them to seek out dozens of family growers and represent each family’s work. Instead, inflexible margins require moving huge quantities of tea, and this is easiest by partnering with the biggest producers.
Buyers across the world go to these brokers because it is convenient. If you do not work in China year round and have a physical presence there, it is impossible to do your own import / export. Buyers worldwide are willing to look the other way and believe that they are buying organic, sustainable tea from small family farms just based on a couple emails back and forth with a broker that probably found them on Linkedin and sent some glossy photos and a few samples.
above: stock images pervade tea industry advertisements
Irresponsible wholesale purchasing trends put the whole economic model of small family farming at risk, because it denies small farmers a market outside of people who can come to their farm and buy direct. It also deprives tea lovers the opportunity to taste true tea grown with passion and care, just because it is more convenient to believe an exporter than for retailers to do the research and forge their own connections. Resellers like these add no value to what they sell, and they are afraid that people will find them out if they disclose their sources. Because of this, these resellers avoid posting where the farms they source from are located, who grows the tea, etc.
Businesses not interested in investing in the future of quality tea through positive and active work in sourcing need to end, and the way to end them is to find them out. When you can buy the real deal for the same price, why bother supporting an outdated model that has already begun to die off in the world of coffee, wine, chocolate and more?
How can you buy tea from small family farms?
First, let’s review: what is small family farming in tea?
The people who pick and finish their tea are also the ones that own the land they cultivate.
The credit for the picking and finishing follows the tea all the way to the consumer without a broker or a middleman obscuring the source or taking credit.
The growers have an active role in setting their collections and prices instead of being bargained down for bigger cuts from a middleman.
But how can you tell if you are getting the real thing?
Most importantly, dig a little on a retailer to see if the family who grows the tea has a voice. These days, it is not enough just to see that tea X was grown by family Z. It is easy to get those posed photos on a one-off trip to China, and a family name is impossible to verify on its own without more information.
When we say “a voice,” we literally mean it. Are there interviews with the farmer available to listen to on the site? If a farmer is incentivized by a real share of the revenue coming from their sales, and they have a long-standing relationship with a vendor, it is highly unlikely that they would be unwilling to share even some of their knowledge, opinions, growing techniques, etc. For almost all of our partners in China, much of the interest in selling their tea outside of China is the chance to share their messages, and conduct in cultural exchange. If interviews or other primary sources are missing completely from a site, that is something to be suspicious of.
Find out how long the vendor has represented a farmer on their site. How many harvests back does the relationship go?
Of course, there is nothing wrong with a new relationship, otherwise there is no growth of opportunity for sharing, but any vendor that has been around for a while and actually claims to represent farmers should have at least some long-standing relationships, otherwise the relationship may be misrepresented (perhaps they are simply working through brokers, or maybe someone is such pain to work with that farmers didn’t want to partner a second year in a row?).
Look for photos not just of the fields, but of actual tea making in progress. Anyone that goes to visit a family farm and stays around long enough or visits often enough to form a real relationship is going to be there when some tea is being made, and it would be crazy if they didn’t have the chance to take any photos to share.
Look for real information on each tea. It should be easy to verify picking dates, elevations, cultivars, and history on each tea if the vendor can actually ask a farmer. Look for specificity. A tea shouldn’t just say it was made in Wuyishan, a vendor should disclose what microclimate or sub-region a tea comes from. The only reason it wouldn’t be listed is if they didn’t know.
Finally, is the story of each family highlighted in any way?
Of course, different producers are comfortable sharing different things about what they do, but at the very least, given the opportunity, most families who grow and finish tea are interested in building a name and a brand for themselves. They may not want to share personal things on something as public as a website. That is up to each relationship and needs to be a continuing dialog every season. But at the very least, most families we have met want their customers to know how long they’ve been farming tea, what makes their tea special, and how it should be enjoyed.
If a family isn’t given a voice through photos, video, or even written stories, then it is hard to believe a brand has forged a meaningful relationship with actual small family farmers. Do not allow big brands to co-opt small family farming into a buzzword. It is too important to the future of tea to be pushed to the margins as a concept for simple convenience.
We dream of a world in the near future where tea brands become unnecessary. As the world becomes smaller and as we are connected in real time through internet technology, more and more farmers are going to be able to reach their customers directly. Yes – there are technical barriers to the dream of growers selling directly to the people who will drink their tea, but these barriers can be overcome with time.
We are not advocating for tea companies like ours to go away, but for us to assume our proper place: faded into the background. Our voices are unimportant compared to the voices of the people engaged in making tea every day. In the new tea industry, brands can and should go away entirely in order to allow individual familys and farms to be their own brand and enjoy the benefits of the fame and recognition their work deserves.
If there is one disadvantage to small family tea farming, it is that direct access to worldwide markets is very difficult to manage. If everyone is busy growing and crafting tea, there is no bandwidth for solving logistics and licensing issues with export, hiring translators to help get the message out, getting around firewalls to be able to talk to customers on social networks they cannot access, and all the packing, shipping, web development, branding, photographs, and more that come with running an e-commerce and international logistics operation.
The goal of any tea company in the modern world should be to think of their partner farmers as clients, not vendors.
Our job as people in the industry not actively growing the tea should be to act as problem solvers to take on the pieces of the business that a family farm does not otherwise have the bandwidth to handle directly, while still honoring their goals in terms of what they want to sell, the prices they want to set, and the stories they want to share.
When tea companies start thinking about what value they can bring to small farmers, everyone wins.
Tea lovers worldwide get access to teas that would otherwise take years of relationship-building to get to try, farmers get access to new markets and an opportunity for cultural exchange, and the industry gets renewed commitment to innovation, quality and sustainability.
To us, this is the future of tea. Farmer’s own brands on every bag, farmer stories shared and translated, collections and prices set to help the long term goals of each partner, and investment in helping each partner build their reputation in the long term for partnerships that last lifetimes.
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