Monday, May 25, 2020

Jason McDonald on The Great Mississippi Tea Company story

Jason; all photos from their business FB page or his personal profile there

If you look into modern trends in US-based tea production Jason McDonald's name comes up, and The Great Mississippi Tea Company (also on FB).

I keep seeing interesting posts about what he's up to, and eventually asked him to explain that background, and where US tea production stands.  He tells that story so clearly and completely here that no further introduction is required.

How did you get into growing and producing tea?

I was on a trip to Savannah and was served a Charleston Tea Plantation teabag. It said “The Only Tea Garden in America” and I was intrigued. I just figured tea grew somewhere in among the corn in Iowa. I had never really given it much thought. I wager that most Americans never really think about where tea comes from—they just drink it.

When we found out it was a camellia that needed high heat, humidity, acidic soil, and ample rainfall, we figured it may work here in MS. We bought 5 plants off of Amazon and made a deal that if 1 survived by the end of the summer, we would look into tea growing. Two survived and we went into the MSU County Agent’s (Rebecca Bates) office and said, “Don’t think we are crazy but we want to grow tea.” She responded, “Well, you are in luck! I know it comes from a camellia.”

It all went from there. We ordered 60,000 plants, were on the nightly news, and met Nigel Melican [a well-regarded authority and consultant on growing tea]. By December of that year (2012), we had our first in-person visit from Nigel. We had already begun breaking ground in November. We were well on our way.

Jason and Timmy with Nigel Melican (right)

processing equipment

Where does your production stand now?  Where you are in a journey, related to where you plan or expected to go, and what you are producing?

We have a little under 7 acres planted. We plan to get to 10 acres and stop for a while. We feel like that will be a sustainable number both physically and economically. We are at year 8 so we are starting to see a break-even point on some of our investment. We haven’t been able to draw salaries yet, but it is at least paying for itself now, which is nice.

We had envisioned hundreds of acres of tea by year 11, but that just really was not sustainable without a lot of other farmers involved. That is starting to make a turn in MS and LA (Louisiana). We have a nice little group of growers starting up. You never know, we may be an up and coming new producer region in a decade’s time.

We are currently producing 250-400 lbs a year. That number grows each year as our plantings are coming in to bearing each year since we are so new. We have produced 6 award winning teas (TOTUS pre-commercial: 1st black, 1st green, 2nd green, and 1st oolong, as well as Global Tea Championship: Delta Oolong- Silver, Mississippi Queen- Silver) in 8 years. We are also featured at Fortnum & Mason’s Rare Tea Counter and Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon at their Piccadilly location in London.

So, we have really raised the standard level of US teas in a very short time.

Colonel Grey:  black tea with lavender, orange peel, sage, and bergamot

Does the style of tea you produce (or styles) relate directly to others produced in known areas?

Quite often, we are compared to Chinese and Taiwanese teas. We aren’t aiming for this on purpose, but it may happen, depending on who you ask.

Our technique of making tea absolutely does not mimic most people—or perhaps anyone at all. We use science based technology to try to best maximize the flavor and aroma compounds in the tea leaves. Although the tea world has started utilizing these sorts of “leaf hacks,” it is not at all widespread.

We like to think of ourselves as our own American Producing region with our own style. We are shaping what is to be expected of US Grown Tea.

Timothy Gipson working with tea leaves

Related to pursuing tea production in Hawaii as well as in Mississippi, are both pursuits currently active?  How does it work to cover such broad work scope at the same time?

At this time, both areas are active. The venture in Hawaii restructured and I am no longer in an ownership role, but I am still involved to some extent. They are nurturing the tea that remains planted and will begin harvesting, I imagine, in the next couple of years. That is the joy of tea plantings—once established, they can live for a hundred years or more.

Hawaii truly was a dream for tea growing. It grows year round and the conditions are just right for growing. Mississippi has a harsher climate (both cold and hot) but the right stress is good for tea flavor and aroma. However, in both places, tea can almost nativize itself after establishment. It can grow fairly unassisted for decades on end. We have run into abandoned gardens in both MS and Hawaii that have not been tended for 10 years.

I believe the most challenging pursuit in tea would be growing where tea just wouldn’t naturally grow. I have had a taste of it in Scotland. I was hired to help a group of growers troubleshoot some of their plantings. I continue to help along the way with that as well. Tea can grow anywhere in the world—the question becomes, “Are you willing to do what it takes to make sure it has what it needs?”

We chose tea as a crop because it suited our natural environment in MS. We do not have to make our natural environment suitable to tea. We get the question all the time that goes something like this, “We are in Upper Peninsula Michigan and we want to grow tea outdoors. Do you have any cold hardy plants that we can buy that won’t die in our winters?” I think people think if they find the right cultivar that it will grow, but sometimes, sadly, the answer is that tea just won’t grow where they are naturally.

with a bit of ash from a volcano eruption, per a photo comment

 A latest venture relates to tea education; can you say a little about that?

So, here is the official media bit about it:

The US Tea Experience was created as a way to extend agri-tourism during the age of COVID-19. With more people sheltering in place and with fewer people traveling, we wanted to create something fun, informative, and entertaining. We envisioned this for an audience of all types—beginners, enthusiasts, growers, processors, merchants, and many more.

The courses will become available every 4-6 weeks through August. These courses will take the participant on the journey from the field to the cup and all the things that go into producing and enjoying a U.S. grown cup of tea.

These courses are self-guided and include different media types-- videos, audio, pdfs, podcasts, etc. Once purchased, the courses and course materials are available to you indefinitely.

The focused tea courses will feature a box that will be sent to the participant to follow along with the course. It will bring the course to life through interactive activities which will appeal to all of your senses.”

It is a way that we have devised to introduce people to tea—namely US Tea. We are starting at the very basic level with a course starting June 1. It is called US Tea Basics. It will cover topics like brewing methods, water boiling, tea types, etc. We will also have a class that goes in-depth into our black tea, Black Magnolia. It will begin to be pre-sold on June 1 as well. It has a box that will be sent with the tea and other teaching aids that will make the course interactive. I can assure you—no one has gone this in-depth with black tea as we have with the details of this course.

It is all very exciting and we  hope it brings joy to folks who are indoors more with COVID-19.

Did some of the factors related to growing tea surprise you, related to those being different from other agricultural issues?  What tools or resources helped resolve difficulties or unique challenges?

I think everywhere in the world has unique challenges for growing crops. We did have to adjust some of the traditional growing areas’ advice on planting times and germination times because we have different conditions.

Nigel Melican and MSU [with more on cultivar study here] have been great helps in all of this. However, a lot of what we have learned has truly been trial and error and keeping good notes. We tried multiple pot sizes and shapes in the nursery. We trialed various fertilizers in the nursery and field. We trialed cuttings vs seedlings. We have trialed all sorts of data points and settled on the ones that worked.

If you aren’t keeping notes and trying new things, you can’t get better at what you do. If you fail or if you succeed, you can’t trace back where you went right or wrong if you don’t have notes. We also data log every point about our processing. I can’t stress the need to take notes enough!

If someone wanted to grow and produce tea can you offer some practical advice about that, at moderate scale or a plant at home? 

You know, I don’t really know on this because the terms of hobbyist vs moderate vs large scale are so vague. Most people think we are this huge producer, but it is two guys and a field. We sometimes have one other part time, seasonal worker to help in the summers. We would be a “small grower” to some producers and a “large grower” to hobbyists. It is all very subjective.

Moderate sized grower: If you are looking to grow commercially, put in a quarter to half an acre of tea properly spaced and planted. That would give you between 1250-2500 plants. See if you can manage that before you get larger. It is way more work than you realize. We ordered 60,000 plants out the gate. Don’t do that. Ha!

Growing at home: My main pieces of advice for hobbyists/backyard growers would be to plant atleast 20 plants. If planted properly, that will only be a 25 ft long hedge that can be trained to grow 6’ wide. If you only plant a bush here or there, you will never have enough leaf to really be useful enough even for personal use. You actually need enough leaf to get a proper roll because they roll off of each other. I get questions all the time about not being able to get a good roll and I ask how much leaf they are processing and they send me a picture of a handful of leaf. Main point of advice—commit to the hobby.

Some readers might be familiar with exploration of a freeze-drying processing step you were experimenting with.  Is this still something you utilize?

I am under an NDA on this. “No Comment”

One thing I can comment on is that there is a whole new world to tea processing and some of the science based experiments that we are conducting are resulting in some interesting new discoveries in the world of tea processing. We are understanding what tea qualities and aspects truly are geographical terroir and what is processing related. We will get into some of these discoveries in our classes at The US Tea Experience.

How do you see tea awareness and demand growing in the US? 

I don’t really know. I have been at this about 8 years. When we got into tea, Teavana had just been bought by Starbucks for a ridiculous sum and Harrods was selling Big Island Tea’s teas for huge sums. Everyone was proclaiming that tea had arrived in the US. It was about to explode in the US. Upward and onward! There’s gold in them thar hills. Ha! Well, we all know how the Teavana deal turned out.

While there has been a uptick lately for tea in the US because of health related claims, I am not sure if it is a trend or a blip on the radar.

I think what works well for us, being US producers, is more the farm to table movement. People want to know and support their local farmer. There are others who appreciate the artistry of what we do as well. I am not sure if it is more this influence or the influence of more people wanting tea in the US as the question supposes. Either way, we are seeing moderate sales and growth and we run out of tea each year so those are all good things!

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