Saturday, May 8, 2010

Spring Harvest: Is Earlier Still Better?

During the last few years, I have often pondered if earlier harvested tea is always better. Given the current global environmental issues, weather patterns are changing - sometimes drastically. Tea-growing regions from China to India have been affected. This year, the impact on major growing regions has been devastating. The late frost caused damage in Eastern China's Zhejiang, Anhui, Fujian, and Guangdong provinces. Production and quality are both lower, yet with high demand and less supply, prices are on the rise.

Chinese tea farmers have been cross-breeding tea to yield earlier harvests because, according to conventional wisdom, the earlier the pick, the higher the value. Traditionally tea bushes are trimmed prior to winter to encourage spring growth and avoid winter frost damage. Fertilizer is applied in the fall so that over the winter, soil bacteria can work their magic, building up just the right kinds of nutrients and soil texture the awakening plants will need as the weather warms. When all conditions are right, the plants' first young leaves are the tastiest and most nutritious, since the bushes had the whole winter to prepare that valuable first growth. However, with the new, earlier-yielding hybridized teas, plus the fact that some farmers fertilize right after winter for an additional push, spring tea is being picked earlier than ever. Couple that with unpredictable climatic conditions you can see that the type of "disaster" experienced this spring threatens to become the new norm.

Starting last year, we stopped fertilizing in early March, fearing that it not only pushed leaves out too soon, but could also weaken the plants with a growth spurt at the wrong time. As those of you following this blog may know, in 2009 and 2010 we've have had two of the largest and best harvests of Imperial Lotus Heart Dragon Well in recent memory. I have also continued to purchase our Imperial Green Tea from its high-altitude home even though cheaper alternatives abound at lower elevations. This year's Imperial Green, which will be available for purchase later this week, was allowed to grow at nature's pace and therefore prospered. The result makes both our farmer and me very happy. During a disastrous year, we've fared rather well.

Taking the same approach, I declined the earliest submission of our popular Imperial Green Oolong from Taiwan's famed Shan Lin Xi area. The early harvest is not so great compared to what is expected of our Imperial standard for this tea. I have opted to wait for higher-altitude Taiwan oolong in mid-May, in keeping with the traditional schedule for spring harvest. I anticipate that these teas will be abundant and at their best when I visit Taiwan May 18. I hope to bring you good news!

As I write this, I realize once again that people in traditional businesses should look to tradition! When something has been done a certain way for hundreds - perhaps thousands - of years without changes, there are usually a few very good reasons. There is a natural cycle to cultivation and plant life that is best left undisturbed. I always say, when in doubt look back in history. Not so long ago, sustainable farming was an everyday way of life, not a buzzword. It's no accident that when humans disrupt that delicate balance the outcome is often not what is intended. History points the way; we should pay attention.

2 comments:

Marlena said...

Having grown up in a farm family, I applaud your attitude. I very clearly remember one year my father said to let the tall deep rooted weeds grow around the tomatoes. I asked why and he said that this was going to be a hot dry year and the weeds would give enough shade to save the tomatoes. He was right - we were the only people in our area to have good ones. Wisdom from experience always beats the fast buck.

Alex Zorach said...

I know exactly what you mean when you say that there's a natural cycle to plant life that is best left alone.

There's usually a cost to pushing something to come earlier or be more extreme in some way or another, and this example of a late frost is a classic example of the sort of thing that can go wrong.

I grow a lot of plants in my garden that I use for herbal tea, and I've learned that some grow better than others and in general, I've just adjusted to the fact that some grow well in my garden and others don't, and I don't try to grow the ones that don't. The result is a strong, vigorous garden with minimal effort.

I think our modern industrialized world has given us the false impression that we can force things to work the way we want them to. Nature doesn't work this way...we need to work within the constraints given to us by nature. If we learn to do this, we'll be rewarded. It's good to experiment with pushing boundaries and trying new things, but we shouldn't ever think that we can control or ignore nature. Ultimately, the best innovation in agriculture is the stuff that happens within it (such as by slowly breeding / selecting plants over many generations).