This article will discuss the need for sustainable tea and how this applies to Chinese tea farms. We’ll start with an explanation of what sustainable tea is.
What is sustainable tea?
The grower of our 1000 year black and white tea is located nearby Dali, in Yunnan province. They pick only one time per year, during spring time. During this harvest period, nobody in the whole area is allowed to kill animals, cut trees, or anything else that disturbs nature. They believe that the ten thousand things all have a spirit and that disturbing their spirit will influence the quality of the tea.
A bit to the north-west in Guizhou province is the grower of our ZhengAn green tea. They planted the Anji Baicha sustainable tea variety, at an elevation of 1000 meters and far away from any city. They don’t use chemicals; therefore, their teas are organic and sustainable. They only pick one time per year (in spring) and use organic fertilizer.
The grower of our 100 years sustainable black tea is located a bit more to the south, in Guangxi province. They collect the leaves from the villagers, who own old tea trees their grandparents planted in order to have leaves for themselves. Because they never used these trees for commercials purpose, these trees just grow naturally and not in a tea farm. Recently some families started tilling the soil and add organic fertilizers, because they found that doing this leads to more harvest per tree.
Then, half a day travelling to the east, you’ll find our Dancong oolong sustainable tea grower. Here there are very old tea trees high in the mountains, but us well young trees down the mountain. We only want their high mountain tea trees, because they grow naturally and don’t need any chemicals.
Moreover, the difference in taste between low mountain Dancong teas and high mountain Dancong teas are just shocking. But, the harvest season of the lower mountain areas is much longer, leading to much more quantity.
All the way up north in Henan province is another Chinese tea farm. Here you’ll find the grower of the Xinyang green sustainable tea. They have a small piece of land with wild tea trees. However, not far away from this wild area are monoculture Chinese tea farms, who use numerous chemicals to grow their teas.
For us, all these tea fields are sustainable, but at the same time they are all different. The Cambridge dictionary describes sustainable as follows: ‘causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time’. This is unfortunately not enough. There should be no damage to the environment, preferably the environment should benefit from growing sustainable tea. Moreover, ‘able to continue for a long period of time’ should change into forever. Leading to our own definition: ‘Causing no harm to the environment and therefore be able to continue forever.’
Sustainability is not just about trying to be more sustainable, but about finding the most sustainable solution. Out of experience, we know this doesn’t happen at once, but can only be realized over a longer period of time.
Let’s take a look at another definition of sustainable: ‘Using methods that do not harm the environment so that natural resources are still available in the future’. Here, we connect sustainability to the future. We should deal with nature in such a way, that natural resources (the tea) will be available for future generations.
Are we, as humans, the managers of nature? Should we deal with nature as a company? For the continuity of our company, we shouldn’t use up all our resources fast, but let future generations benefit from our approach too. Today, this would be regarded as a sustainable company.
Great, but not enough for Chinese tea farms.
What is a tea farm?
A tea farm is part of a local ecosystem. Often, you won’t even recognize that there is a tea farm, because the tea trees live in harmony with other local tea and plant varieties. The quality of the tea is strongly connected with the environment being healthy or not.
In the example of the Dali tea area, the tea trees grow high in the mountains, in the forest. In Guizhou they grow in a 20-hectare plantation planted and maintained by the local tea grower. On the Guangxi Chinese tea farm you need to search for them and in Guangdong they grow both on the mountains and in the valley.
All over the country, you find Chinese tea farms of a 1000 hectares, but as well villagers who just own 1 or 2 trees. Most of the tea is produced by big tea companies, but tea connoisseurs will always search for the small sustainable tea area.
Some Chinese tea farms have more than a thousand employees, other tea farms only one. Some tea farms need containers to ship their tea and find customers all over the world, others just ship their tea to a number of people they know well. Some tea farms are busy all year round, others just pick one time per year and take care of their vegetables the rest of the year.
All these tea farms are part of the tea industry, an industry which millions of people depend on, together providing billions of tea drinkers with tea. Year after year. Four billion kilogram of tea is produced every year, about 30 percent in China.
What is a sustainable Chinese tea farm?
Unfortunately, hardly any tea farm is sustainable. They could be certified as organic or fair trade, but they are not sustainable. The answer to this issue lies in the meaning of a sustainable business model. When you grow tea to make money, you won’t agree with 1/10th of the yield compared to chemical growing, you won’t take the risk of having a year without harvest because you see that the tea tree needs to rest. Simply but: what nature provides is not stable, and a business model requires stable growth.
However, with patience and understanding nature, tea will grow without you doing anything. The answer is with biodiversity. When a tea tree grows in harmony with nature, the tea area itself will take care of water and nutrition, will fight pests itself and will become resilient. The beauty is this, is that this healthy ecosystem will improve the local environment: it will serve as a filter for water, the healthy soil will hold the water like a sponge, wildlife will appear, fungi will grow in the soil and small diseases will only make the local ecosystem more resilient.
There are only a few sustainable tea farms in China left and many of them are not biodiverse. The good news is that more and more tea drinkers only drink tea from sustainable and biodiverse Chinese tea farms. The more tea drinkers follow their example, the more Chinese tea farms will provide you with not only completely natural, but as well of unique and wonderful taste. By drinking this tea, we cause no harm to the environment and are therefore able to continue to drink good tea forever.
Perfect sustainable tea
Great tea is unique, beautiful because of its imperfection. Great tea is not stable, but every year different. A small sustainable tea area with older and younger tea trees combined, could provide tens of varieties, because every tea tree has its own characteristics. The exact same combination of tea trees planted in a slightly other area, will provide another tens of varieties.
This seems to be chaotic, but this constant changing is exactly why nature is perfect. There will be diseases, there will be pests, they only make a healthy ecosystem even stronger: continuously adjusting to the constantly changing environment. Think of the food chain, where predator animals hunt the weakest antelopes and therefore assist in making the group stronger.
Yes, this is perfection, nature is perfect. Only by understanding nature and working with nature, a tea can be perfect. This perfection is the true meaning of sustainable tea. The more we choose to drink teas from sustainable tea farms, the more tea farms will become sustainable.
Sustainable tea world
However, there is still a long way to go. Tea logistics are not sustainable, tea packaging is not sustainable, there doesn’t seem to be a sustainable business model. We can use solar energy, the wind, even changing tides for shipping tea, but we are not there yet. These big changes take time.
Packages are not sustainable, and we can produce biodegradable ones, use wooden boxes, but the quality is not as good as the non-sustainable variants. We can bring our canisters to our local tea shop for a refill, but no tea shop provides this service, yet. This takes time, too.
Customers do choose for the best-looking packaging like they select the best-looking apple. This change takes time, too. But, slowly we’re getting there.The tea world will become sustainable, countless small tea growers will provide us one day with unique and ever-changing teas, becoming the new standard. Because of the long history of tea growing, Chinese tea farms will take the lead. It’s actually not that complicated. When we all stop drinking the non-sustainable, chemical tea, there will be only sustainable tea left.