Tea is an extremely popular beverage in the United States and around the globe. However, the market for tea can go beyond just consumption. For example, tea can be used in beauty products and essential oils. Its market value continues to rise, making it an attractive specialty crop option for growers.
The Southeast may be the perfect place to grow tea due to the climate. Researchers in Florida, Mississippi and Georgia are diligently working to figure out a viable tea system for U.S. growers, and find a way around their biggest challenge: labor.
Just as with many other specialty crops, tea is incredibly labor intensive. “It takes quite a bit of labor. So, tea has traditionally been produced in areas with very cheap labor, which isn’t the United States,” says Brantlee Spakes Richter, a senior lecturer in the plant pathology department at the University of Florida.
Traditionally, when harvesting tea, the bud and the first two leaves are picked. Depending on the size of the grower’s production, there simply may not be enough hands to pick. Yet, there may be a solution to this issue: mechanical harvesting.
Mechanically harvesting tea seems like a quick fix to a large problem. According to Donglin Zhang, a professor at the University of Georgia, a mechanized harvester can serve as a substitute for approximately 500 people. However, mechanical harvesting does not come without challenges of its own. For example, mechanical harvesting can affect the market value of the product.
According to Richter, the high-end (hand-picked) market includes the tea found in specialty tea shops. It is more expensive to produce because it is highly labor intensive. The first buds need to be hand-picked in order to produce the high-end, quality product. Growers in Hawaii grow tea for the high-end market. “They’re the only state in the U.S. that has a well-coordinated tea market and program,” Richter says.
The mechanical-harvest market includes the store-bought brands, such as Lipton. This market is much more feasible for most growers. Since the tea is mechanically harvested, growers do not have to worry about labor costs. However, mechanized harvesting includes an increased risk of disease due to the large amount of leaves that are being cut open. Mechanical harvesting can also be tough on the plant, making it wear out faster. But given that tea plants can live approximately 80 to 100 years, reducing the plant’s lifespan is not as terrible as it may be for other crops.
Zhang says the only way to have a successful tea production system in the Southeast is through mechanical harvesting. He sees a bigger challenge in finding which cultivars are going to work in this region. Richter says growers in Hawaii seem to be seeing success in hand-picking their crop, so that may not be as impossible as it seems.
But Judson LeCompte, a doctoral student and research associate at Mississippi State University, says he believes that southeastern growers may lean more toward mechanized harvesting. “If you look at other labor-intense crops in the Southeast, people are trying to figure out how to mechanically harvest those,” LeCompte explains. Though, with mechanical harvesting, a crop may not be eligible for the high-end, specialty tea market. So, the grower has a choice to make.
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