Mississippi’s Mr. Tea
By Sherry Lucas,
July 24, 2014
The Great Mississippi Tea Company in Brookhaven, with plants set to go into the ground this fall, aims for an agritourism draw and the specialty tea market.
Raindrops bead on the green leaves of thousands of young plants in the shade nursery at the Great Mississippi Tea Company in Brookhaven, a glistening endorsement of Jason McDonald’s plan for land where cattle once roamed.
“Healthy little plant,” tea consultant Nigel Melican observes, picking one up for a closer look. “In two years, you’ll be plucking that for tea.”
A steaming cup of comfort from these leaves is still a bit down the road but that’s the goal — Mississippi-made specialty tea, an agritourism draw and a crop that won’t get wiped out by a hurricane.
Tourists, too, are still a year or two away, McDonald says.
McDonald’s family has been timber farming since the early 1980s on north and central Walthall County farmland that’s been in the family since the 1800s. “When Katrina came through, we lost about 75 percent of the acreage. We’re just now recovering on the timber farm,” nine years later.
“We wanted to find something that would recover quickly, or not be damaged at all,” he says.
Melican points out, “I’ve never heard of anyone losing tea with a typhoon in China.”
McDonald’s May 2012 visit to a tea farm in Charleston piqued his interest, as soon as he heard the tea plant was a camellia. High heat, humidity, acidic soil and plenty of rain, “well, that’s pretty much a match” with conditions back home. “It went from ‘Gee, let’s see if we can do this,’ to reaching out to people like Nigel” for a plan to take “this crazy idea” to a model and successful fruition.
The tea farm is destined for the family homestead in Lincoln County, on land once used for cattle production.
Teacraft Ltd. managing director Melican, from England, has worked in 26 different tea countries around the world, helping growers improve production, optimize factories and troubleshoot problems. “The opportunity to help a new tea grower in the States was one that was too good to miss
“If you throw money at tea, you make it grow almost anywhere,” he says. But America’s high labor cost, far above that of standard tea countries such as India, China and countries in Africa, is a hangup, and the international tea industry has been slow to mechanize. But tea-growing Japan, which has mechanized, provides a model.
McDonald laughingly stresses, “I’d like to make it clear, I’m not just throwing money at tea …”
“It’s guided throwing,” Melican clarifies, with mechanization and the specialty market as key, suiting the trend for quality specialty teas of known origin, with a good story, sustainably produced. “The BMW and Mercedes end of the tea market.”
McDonald illustrates the target with a tray of top-flight teas in tins, their aroma an inviting tease.
Melican describes the potential. “It’ll be a tea which, first of all, you will buy to indulge as a luxury. You’ll buy it to impress your friends. You’ll fall in love with it,” he says, prompting an appreciative chuckle from McDonald. “You’ll drink it when you’re feeling low and you want to cheer yourself up. … Then of course, you will start to drink it more often and it will become a habit.”
A lot of tea is sold on its story. McDonald’s is steeped in history, with family ties stretching back to Daniel Boone and John C. Calhoun, vice president to John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, and live oaks on the site that came from seedlings grown from Beauvoir oaks.
The boutique tea farm — or tea garden, as that size is known — will have some commodity tea (secondary grades) as well, for bulk tea and ready-to-drink sweet tea. In addition to specialty markets, McDonald’s plan includes a shop on the farm, with tea sold, too, through the website, www.greatmsteacompany.com. Tea fans can keep up with developments there and on its Facebook page.
At present, he’s got about 30,000 plants, with about 200 in the ground. This fall, he’ll plant three acres, following with another four acres the next spring. That’ll take care of all the plants now in the nursery. About 170 acres (4,000-5,000 plants an acre) are needed for the factory (three years out, timed with the first harvest). They projected first sales of selected small amounts in 2017, with full production 2020-2021. All tea (green, black, white, oolong) comes from the camellia sinensis species — it’s just a matter of how it’s processed.
Others are interested, too, particularly with plants’ survival after one of the coldest winters in memory. “That always was the question” of a crop grown in tropical areas surviving the cold, “and they pulled right through,” McDonald says.
Research on tea farming in Mississippi, supported by Mississippi State University and a grant from Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce through USDA Specialty Crop Program, is in progress; McDonald’s farm and Teacraft are industry collaborators in the effort.
“We really don’t know what insects might feed on the tea, we don’t know what diseases might arise,” says Judson LeCompte, MSU graduate research assistant. “We’ve just got to find those issues and find those cultivars” that work best here. With similar growing conditions, “it might be a good fit for our blueberry growers as well.”
Already 400-500 plants and about five years into that exploration is J&D Blueberry Farm in Poplarville. Partner Donald van de Werken, spurred by mention on horitculturist Felder Rushing’s radio show, followed up with his own research via Google.
“The issue here now is, I still don’t know how to process it correctly,” says van de Werken, who met recently with the Great Mississippi Tea Company and MSU for advice, inviting other blueberry growers along. He’s propagating and collecting seed; next step is to set aside more acreage. His aim, too, is to turn it into an agritourism operation and commercial venture.
“It sounds viable,’ van de Werken says, with specialty tea the probable market. “Camellia bushes grow here like nothing. The deer do not eat it, and it’s a pretty healthy plant once it gets going.
“We’re excited about it. And, it can take several cuttings. It gives some sustainability for us as growers,” says van de Werken, hopeful MSU’s research will help them along. “The farmers in Mississippi can grow anything. It’s just the art of learning how to make that tea.”
At the Great Mississippi Tea Company, planted gallon containers line up like soldiers ready to go into the field. A black light and sticky plates clamped by mousetraps make a homemade bug-catcher, to see what insects are in the area. A test plot offers a look at weeds, mulching and drainage for planting options.
A walkabout in the morning’s drizzle outlines the vision and the potential. Back inside, a hot cup of tea in a Mississippi July isn’t out of the question.
Actually, it hits the spot.