I am far away from home, in Southern Carolina, USA, visiting the only tea planation in North America. It’s co-owned by the Bigelow Tea Company, one of our important North American members and I am here at the invitation of Cindy Bigelow of Bigelow Teas.
Whilst on a visit to Sri Lanka and enthralled by the beauty of our island nation, Cindy spoke to me about their own southern gem, The Charleston Tea Plantation, which is situated on Wadmalaw Island in South Carolina. Although the Charleston Tea Plantation was only founded in 1987, tea had been grown there previously for a number of years, mainly for research purposes. A third generation tea specialist William Barclay Hall is the man on site and shows me around. He tells me that I’m 9,395 miles away from home in Sri Lanka.
Traditionally tea plantations are labour intensive and require 1.5 workers per acre. The uniqueness of Charleston is that it is not labour intensive. The 100-acre site only employs four workers to grow, cultivate, and manufacture the tea. If you compare that to Sri Lanka, 150 workers would be required! In countries that face a shortage of workers mechanisation might be the answer. That said, the flat lay of the land in Charleston and complete automation of factory machinery lends itself to this situation.
The Green Giant mechanically harvests the green leaf between the rows of tea bushes with its 72 inch sickle bar gently clipping off the newly grown leaves, and a powerful fan blowing them into a large collection bag mounted on the back of the harvester. The Giant manoeuvres perfectly between the planted tea rows, which have been spaced to suit the harvester. Just as impressive is the factory’s ability to manufacture Green, Black, or Oolong Teas, depending on demand.
Tea plants are raised in a greenhouse with computerised climate control and automated drip irrigation. This is one of the reasons why so few workers are required. Out in the fields shade trees are conspicuously absent and organic fertiliser is used in place of chemical-based ones.
During the winter months the bushes go into dormancy and plucking only takes place during the months of May through to September. Just like in Darjeeling and Assam the first and second flush brings about a unique flavour sought after by tea connoisseurs. So every year in May, the plantation celebrates the commencement of the harvest season with the First Flush Tea Festival - a daylong event for all ages.
Tea tourism and the value added tea gift shop draws a lot of visitors to Charleston, and so too does the wedding venue, which adds to a positive cash flow during the winter season. As a former traditional tea planter in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Rwanda, visiting Charleston opened up new horizons for me. I wonder if Sri Lanka and other major producing nations could learn from this tea tourism model?
It was an exhilarating experience and my thanks to Cindy Bigelow for giving me the opportunity to witness America’s only tea plantation.
I should also point out that ETP’s Executive Director, Sarah Roberts is speaking at the North American Tea Convention this week, which means she will have a chance to sample some of Bigelow’s fantastic teas first hand! Sarah will be discussing the big sustainability challenges facing the tea industry and discussing how companies such as Bigelow, Mother Parkers, Starbucks, Republic of Tea, and the Metropolitan Tea Company work with their international peers, suppliers, and development partners to tackle the issues and improve the lives of tea workers, farmers, and the environment.
Sarah will be speaking about Working Collaboratively for a Sustainable Tea Industry at the North American Tea Conference on Thursday 22 September.