The He Family in Laoshan Village
has been growing tea since the 1950’s.
At that time, Mr. He’s father was one of the first farmers to move from growing potatoes and beans to experimenting with tea on the slopes of the Taoist holy mountain.
Mr. He looks over his family’s tea fields in the autumn.
As one of the northernmost, coldest tea growing regions in the world, there have always been unique challenges for the He Family to coax such sweet, delicate and nuanced flavor from their rocky soil and ocean climate. For example, while white tea can grow without assistance throughout the winters in warm Fujian, the He Family needs to protect their plants with three layers of greenhouse protection during the winter months. Winters in Shandong province last longer than China’s more traditional growing regions in the south, giving the He Family and all of Laoshan a later start to spring picking. Even when the weather is kind, these are difficult conditions to maintain tea plants. The payoff is the intense rich and nuanced tea that only challenging growing conditions can inspire.
Three layers of greenhouse protection keeps the He Family’s tea safe from freezes over a long winter.
White tea grows wild, tall, and unmanaged in Jiangyangcun above the Chixi Brook.
Since 2015, bitter cold winters have killed off nearly half of the expected spring harvest each year, forcing the He family to trim mature plants all the way down to the roots and let them recover all summer for a scarce autumn harvest. This devastating loss has had an unexpected upside. Though harvests are small, the tea that can be picked has been sweeter and more flavorful than ever. The He Family has been making do for three years with less tea, and working to insulate their plants even more intensely through the winter, relying on charging higher prices for the increased labor and decreased harvest.
This year brought about a new threat to tea in the area.
After another historically cold winter, the short spring picking window in 2018 was cut off in May by sudden, unexpected extreme heat and intense rains followed right after by alternating unseasonably cold weather.
This unprecedented short window to harvest and finish tea after a bitter winter has meant the smallest yield in a generation for the He Family, and for the entire small village of Laoshan.
The He Family has been working to manage their tea through the late spring and early summer by looking for picking windows after cold spots to put together a larger harvest.
But as it stands, the whole region faces a crisis.
While one or two years of difficult harvesting can be absorbed through the fortitude and determination for which Shandong Province is famous, the fear is that this may be the turning point for a long term trend of more extreme weather in the area and across all tea growing regions.
Shandong Province is especially vulnerable. Unlike Fujian, the province is not heavily wooded, mountainous or rich in lakes, rivers and springs. Much of inland Shandong is dedicated to staple crop farming and faces yearly water shortages. Laoshan is uniquely lucky to be fed by mountain springs. Daily mist from the ocean rolls in each morning, and the protected national parkland in the Laoshan mountain acts as a barrier to protect Laoshan’s tea fields. However, the influence of the surrounding area just outside the mountains means more potential for erosion, more winter wind, and more summer heat.
Spring water collects in reservoirs in the mountain parks above Laoshan.
And yet, even regional like Wuyishan and Anxi face growing problems of deforestation and less and less predictable weather patterns. The increased pressure for staple crops to feed a growing and wealthier population, illegal deforestation of protected land, the diversion of water to metropolitan areas, and the use of coal as a primary form of heat and electricity are all looming threats to the future of tea farming across China.
What is being done now?
Local governments across China are recognizing the economic and intangible cultural value of their traditional tea crops, and many are working to protect regions like Laoshan as quickly as they can.
In Laoshan, the local village government has banned all industry and placed a moratorium on construction in Laoshan proper. Despite the rise of tourism in the area, only farmer homes and workshops are being approved for renovations, putting a halt to deforestation by reducing the opportunity for building. A ban on industrial activity and manufacturing helps protect the unique microclimate from air pollution.
Unfortunately Laoshan can only pass laws in their own jurisdiction. In the future, they will need the cooperation of neighboring cities like Qingdao to truly protect the whole area. Luckily, the Qingdao government has set its sights on earning the rank of China’s cleanest city. The Qingdao Metro has been undertaking a massive subway project to reduce car traffic, and the city is slowly disincentivizing industrial activity and working to reduce reliance on coal.
In the world of Chinese tea, conservation efforts extend beyond Laoshan.
The local government in Wuyishan this year has taken the unprecedented step of ripping out huge areas of tea hedges illegally planted in the region in the last ten years. These recently planted tea farms were all skirting regulations designed to combat deforestation in the interest of profit. Responding to increased domestic and international demand, each of these farms had cut down and cleared out native forests, protected since 2008, and replaced them with tea hedges.
This year there was finally enough political will to enforce this decade-old law. While this has certainly dramatically reduced the amount of tea available in the region, it has also layed the foundations to restore the natural forests of the region and increase biodiversity. As these areas are replanted with forests, birds and native plants will also return, which in turn yields better, higher quality tea.
What does the future hold?
As water shortages propagate, and if extreme heat, cold, and other challenges to tea farming continue to grow, large low elevation flat-land monoculture farming is going to be the hardest by far. These operations don’t have natural mountain springs and mist to rely on for water; lowland monoculture operations don’t have those cold mornings and native bird populations to protect against insects. As growing seasons get shorter and shorter, compacted by long cold winters and long hot summers, factory farm operators are going to be forced to lean more heavily on pesticides to protect their tea through the summer and synthetic fertilizer to try to maintain the yield they need to make the bottom line.
At the same time, Chinese consumers are getting both wealthier and more insistent in their demand for clean and healthy food and drink. There is less and less appetite for cheap teas, subsidized by heavy use of chemicals. This means that these monoculture operations are going to have to start aggressively pursuing the export market and supplying beverage manufacturers.
What about small family farmers?
Small family farmers are also going to be facing unprecedented challenges, even those growing tea in a biodiverse well-balanced environment with access to mountain springs for water and enough habitat for birds to keep insects under control.
Picking seasons will be shorter with lower than ever yields. The traditional concept of pre-qingming spring harvests and struct seasonality is going to need to be recalibrated to the specific realities of each microclimate. Farmers like the He Family in Laoshan are branching out into wild-foraged herbs like Gan Zao Ye and Goji Leaf that have different picking windows and different dependencies than tea to diversify their work and ensure more consistency each year. They are also working to identify picking windows in the summer that are cool enough to yield sweet, nuanced tea, all while working towards better yield in autumn after their plants have had a better chance to recover from winter cold.
Our responsibility as partners and advocates for small family tea farmers is to ensure that our partners’ revenue is consistent enough to allow continued investment in their communities and fuel growth and sustainability. Farmers like the He Family that choose to work around the challenges and pressures of this generation’s climate may be seeing reduced yield, but cold weather and difficult conditions are also bringing about some of the sweetest and richest tea ever as the plant responds to stress with slower growth and more polyphenols.
The stress of this new reality on agriculture leaves the tea industry balanced on a knife’s edge.
We believe it is our responsibility to support the agriculture that will lead to a better future. The only alternative is turning a blind eye to our sources – allowing monoculture farming to drag us all down in a race to the bottom fueled by industrial fertilizer, pesticides, and cost-cutting. If we deny this opportunity to factory farming in tea, we will be building an industry that can withstand the challenges ahead and last though to a future supported by a collaboration of government reform, and consumer-driven changes, a future where responsible farming is lucrative enough to inspire the legislation needed to protect the land for generations to come.