In March and April of 2020, we outlined our plan to continue our mission: to serve and advocate for the talented and passionate small family farmers that have come to be our second family. In candid talks with our partners, we came together to identify a drop in Chinese demand and an increase in market uncertainty as the major challenges farmers like the He Family and the Dongsa Cooperative are facing right now, and we planned our year around being the best partners we can in supporting creative solutions to these problems.
We started by pre-buying harvests and committing to more tea than ever before to make up for our partners’ lost domestic clients – closed down due to COVID-19 or restricted from travelling to the farms to buy. Our team in China took on the work of personally driving to regional shipping centers since last-mile couriers were all shut down, and we took on shipping costs close to 300% higher than usual to keep the tea moving.
You can read all the details of this plan for small farm resilience here >>
These measures helped immensely in getting our partners through the worst of the shut-downs in China, and helped them take risks like experimental new tea styles and continued innovation in biodiverse farming techniques.
With spring harvest season and oolong finishing season wrapping up – an unprecedented success for our partners – it is time to take a second look to see what challenges still remain.
Happily, China is largely reopened, with our partners able to operate more freely, domestic couriers working again, and travel finally possible. The domestic tea market may take many years to recover with so many small retail shops never able to reopen, and corporate tea gifting on permanent hold. We’ll continue addressing this by sticking to our commitment to pre-buying and picking up that dropped demand.
As we planned out the spring with our partners ,we all assumed that once China was reopened, logistics would get easier, and shipments would be faster. Unfortunately, the current state of the USA has drastically altered that reality. Now, instead of flights being grounded due to US banning travel to China, they are grounded because China is banning almost all international incoming travel for fear of it contributing to a second COVID-19 resurgence. This means that we have not seen any improvement on shipping time at all.
In fact, a combination of dramatically reduced flights and an increase in export regulations this spring has essentially put a halt to small retail shipments from China-based retailers direct to US consumers, with reports of people waiting months for orders placed with no updates at all. We’re grateful to be set up this year to serve you and our partners in China better than China-based direct-shippers because we can consolidate much larger orders, work with the proper authorities for booking space and export clearance, and then ship orders out from the US as tea comes in without unforeseen delays.
Our solution to the severely constricted shipping is to consolidate our traditional weekly air shipments into much larger shipments to go out monthly. We have experimented extensively throughout the spring with many carriers, and we found that small shipments are always being pushed for space on limited air cargo by bigger clients to the carriers. Small shipments are often being held up with no explanation on the China export side or getting lost entirely. To fix these problems, we’ve bundled much larger shipments together and contracted professional export advocates to speed our boxes through China-side clearances and get space booked.
This solution has been successful so far. It is frustrating to not have a tea arrive days after harvest like what used to be possible, but our partners are compensating for this by keeping teas vacuum-sealed and in cold storage for optimum freshness until shipping space is available, and then sealing in individual bags to lock in all the fresh aromatic goodness.
The consequence of Chinese New Year happening right before COVID shut downs in China – only to be followed by travel bans – is a much smaller collection on our site than we’d like to have available. The upshot is that, after two months of working various small shipment options, our first very large shipment is finally arriving, which will get our stock back to normal by the end of July.
We’ve been opening pre-orders throughout spring and summer 2020 to allow you to reserve many of the incoming teas, first sent by small express courier, and again more recently by large consolidated shipment. We will be getting all of your pre-orders packed in the coming days the moment the tea is in hand, and getting dozens of new teas up on the site.
Since we switched successfully to large shipments, we already have a second shipment being boxed up right now for arrival later this summer so that by the time this first big shipment starts running low again, we’ll already have new tea and won’t run into the problem of a dwindling collection. Meanwhile, we continue to test smaller express courier methods as conditions evolve weekly, and once those start making it through again, we’ll be able to move back to more frequent new arrivals.
If you’re on the CSA-style tea of the month club – we’ve got you covered. The latest incoming shipment has the next several months of club teas already packed up so that there is no chance of delays on upcoming club boxes.
These re-shipments, new export clearance fees, express shipping fees, and overall higher air ship rates mean we are experiencing unprecedented expenses to get our partners teas to you. You’ll notice that we have not been passing those costs down to you, largely keeping this year’s harvests very close to last year’s prices. This is part of our commitment to being good and responsible long term partners both for you and folks like the He Family in Laoshan.
We believe that trust is more important than profit, and we want to honor the trust you put in us through your support and pre-orders by being transparent and responsible. We believe that this is a short term adjustment, and we are willing to take on these expenses because it is part of our mission to be the best advocates for our partners that we can.
We wanted to share this behind-the-scenes look at our logistics work in the interest of transparency and to give you the long term picture of how we’ll continue to adapt and grow to serve you and our farmer-partners. You can get full details on upcoming shipments, incoming teas, and expected timelines on our new 2020 incoming tea tracking page >>