Tea Leaves Are the Future
Time and again since 1800, when tea roots from China were planted along the Ashley River west of Charleston, efforts to raise tea and develop an American industry have been doomed by death, civil war and neglect.
Now an effort to reverse centuries of failure is being attempted by two anxious entrepreneurs, 39 year old William Barclay Hall, a rakish, British trained tea taster who drives a red Lotus, and his 45 year old partner, Mack Fleming, a silver haired horticulturalist. They are growing, curing and shipping the nation’s only domestic tea, American Classic, from a small plantation cleared from a forest of live oaks and twisted cedars on this island 20 miles south of Charleston.
In doing so, the two owners of the 127 acre Charleston Tea Plantation may provide some economic lessons for small farms by acting like a food company that controls the product from the field to the supermarket.
The retailer who sells a box of 20 tea bags for $2.59 pays Mr. Hall and Mr. Fleming almost half that amount. In contrast, a wheat farmer is fortunate to gain a penny from a $1 loaf of bread. Grain farmers earn about 3 cents from a box of Total. High Return for Farm
Mr. Fleming explained the high return: ”We till the soil. We package the product. And then we deliver the tea to the store. We could never make this work if we just grew the tea and sold it to a manufacturer.”
It is much too early to determine whether the tea will be popular enough to become a staple in American cupboards and make Mr. Fleming and Mr. Hall as wealthy as the plantation owners who raised cotton and rice here 150 years ago with slave labor.
But local bankers, encouraged by prospects for breaking into the $1 billion a year national tea market with a distinctly American asics trainers brand, lent the tea plantation half the $1 million needed to get started. And distributors are swiftly moving American Classic tea out of the Carolinas and into Atlanta and New York, where it is to be introduced in A. stores early next month. Sales have reached 2,200 cases a month, 6 boxes a case, said Mr. Hall, a third of what is needed to become profitable.
Tea, first cultivated in China more than 4,000 years ago, was once the most popular drink in North America. But an unpopular British tea tax led to the historic colonial tea dumping party in Boston harbor on Dec. 16, 1773, and tea never regained supremacy over coffee in what was to become the United States. Interest in Product
However the Government and some agricultural scientists never lost interest in tea and have long been intrigued by the possibilities for American agriculture. Since the late 19th century, tea imports have exceeded 100 million pounds a year. This year imports from China, India, Sri Lanka, Kenya and other countries exceeded 174 million pounds, worth more than $120 million, according to a market survey by the A. C. Nielsen Company.
The first attempts to cultivate American tea were made by a French botanist, Andre Michaux, who collected roots from the Far East and planted them in 1800 on the Middleton Barony Plantation along the Ashley River.
Tea bushes, which can grow 30 feet tall and live for hundreds of years, are as hardy as fence posts. Mr. Michaux grew ill and died soon after he began his experiments, but some of his tea plants still survive at the plantation.
In 1848, Dr. According to newspaper accounts, Dr. Smith died in 1853 from injuries sustained in an assault, and the plantation collapsed. Many of those bushes also survive. Appropriation for Experiment
Several more attempts to establish tea plantations in the South failed in the Civil War. But in 188 asics trainers 1, Congress appropriated $10,000 to establish an experimental farm 30 miles west of here in Summerville. The farm operated for seven years but closed after its manager died and investigators determined that because of low production, each pound of American tea was costing taxpayers $1,200.
Three years later the farm was sold to Dr. Charles U. Shepard, a chemist, who established the Pinehurst Tea Plantation. He planted 90 acres of tea bushes, many raised from seeds and cuttings from plants in the earlier experiments that demonstrated good growth and yields in the loamy Carolina soils and the hot summers and mild winters.
For 25 years, until he died in 1915, Dr. Shepard ran the most successful commercial tea company in American history, producing as much as 12,000 pounds of tea a year, and in 1905 winning a prize for quality and taste at an international exposition in St. Louis.
The tea plants growing in long, neat rows on the Charleston Tea Plantation are direct descendants of bushes that grew at Dr. Shepard’s Pinehurst Plantation. The bushes were planted here starting in 1964, when the Thomas J. Lipton Company, the world’s largest tea merchant, established an experimental tea farm there. The experiment nearly ended in 1974 when the first manager died in a plane crash. 300 Varieties on Farm Last February, Lipton sold the farm for $250,000 to Mr. Fleming, who was its last manager. Over 300 varieties of tea are growing on the farm, producing tons of young green tea leaves that yield a bright, bold, smooth tea. Although the farm is owned by Mr. Fleming, Mr. Hall, the tea taster, is a partner in the business, which has eight other workers.
Included in the package was a lease for a mechanical tea harvester that Mr. Fleming designed while he worked for Lipton. The harvester, which saves the work of hundreds of pickers, resembles a boatyard crane and was made by radically altering a tobacco harvester. From May to October, the peak harvest period, the ungainly machine m asics trainers oves slowly along the rows of tea bushes, which look remarkably like rows of ordinary hedges. The machine clips roughly two inches of new leaves from the tops, adding to the image of a carefully manicured garden.
The tea leaves are dumped into bins where they are dried, ground, fermented, sifted and eventually dropped into an automatic machines that turns out 110 tea bags a minute. A crew of five works in a small room with a delicate, spicy scent, placing the individual bags, 20 at a time, into boxes that are wrapped in plastic and loaded into cardboard cases.
Mr. Hall has big plans for the tea business. ”Next year, we’re going to have tours out here, and serve tea and crumpets on the porch,” he said.
Mr. Fleming believes there is huge potential for American tea. ”We have plenty of room if we need to expand,” he said, waving his arm over the tops of tea bushes.
Both men, while insisting they are not superstitious, joke anxiously about their sa asics trainers fety. ”If you consider history and the fates of others who have tried this,” said Mr. Fleming, laughing, ”you have to wonder how long either of us will last.”