V. Todd Miller
In the 1989 classic film “Steel Magnolias,” hairstylist Truvy Jones, played by Dolly Parton, refers to iced tea as the “house wine of the South.” But is tea also on the cusp of becoming a lucrative Southern crop? LSU AgCenter researchers and one local grower see potential in the emerging market.
LSU AgCenter plant specialist Yan Chen and her team conducted two tea research studies at the Hammond Research Station over the past year, both funded by the LSU/College of Agriculture Discover undergraduate research program. She calls the results “preliminary but interesting,” and says the students involved have presented them at two horticulture academia conferences (See accompanying article).
Chen cites labor as one of the top challenges for commercial tea production in the U.S. because hand harvest is a labor-intensive endeavor, yet it is essential for making high quality specialty tea.
According to Chen, a new selective harvester, released by Williames Tea last year, has assisted growers in making quality specialty tea at a much lower labor cost.
“As indicated by trials conducted at a Mississippi tea farm, the quality of tea leaves harvested using this harvester was very close to hand plucking,” Chen said. “Operated by two people, it takes only 10 minutes to harvest a field that would have taken a day if harvested by hand.”
“We have ordered the selected harvester and expect it to be delivered later this year,” she said. “We are likely to schedule a spring tea workshop once the machine is delivered.”
Chen went on to say that her team has grown a significant number of tea plants that are available for interested growers for trial.
“We need to have a larger production base to leverage USDA support,” she said.
AgCenter economist Michael Deliberto agreed that harvesting tea can be labor intensive and the overall process takes time.
“The harvest process involves withering, rolling and drying,” he said. “However, tea plants cannot be harvested until they are 4 to 5 years old.”
Deliberto said that his research showed a single acre can produce about a ton of tea.
Hans Marchese, tea production manager at the Fleur de Lis Tea Co. in Amite, says that the past year has been an eventful one for the producer and distributor.
“This is our first year commercially producing tea,” he said. “Our first black tea, Big Easy,
was designed by Beverly Wainwright of the Scottish Tea Factory who has made half a dozen award-winning teas from plants grown in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Scotland.”
Marchese said that in 2023 the farm will be developing a green tea as well as a white tea. In addition, there are plans in the works for an immersive tea-making course.
“We will teach people how to make tea,” he said. “They will have the chance to see the whole process from plucking, to withering, to rolling, to oxidizing and into the dryer.”
V. Todd Miller is an assistant communications specialist for the AgCenter.
This article appeared in the summer 2022 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.
Read more about tea production in Louisiana: Growing Tea in Louisiana
LSU AgCenter horticulturist Yan Chen pours samples of black tea for attendees of the July 22 field day at the Hammond Research Station. Chen studies growing tea plants, which are a type of camellia. Photo by Olivia McClure
Timmy Gipson from the Great Mississippi Tea Company and assistant Sagan King operate a selective tea harvester. Photo by Donglin Zhang/University of Georgia