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Putting Names to Tea Farmers

by Lydia Kung

I am sometimes asked for the names of tea farmers who provide us with teas.

I know that some companies put farmers’ faces and names alongside their teas.

This connection is real, but it is not as simple or direct as one might assume.

Shown here is one farmer turning in her day’s picking to an organic processing factory (photo taken April 17, 2018):

This woman (in the red jacket), named Mei-fang Liu, had a bag totaling about 10 kgs, which meant she is a fairly experienced picker. She is among others who have contracts with this particular organic factory in Hubei province. She is a tenant of the tea factory/company.

The 10 kgs Ms.Liu collected that day will not be enough to constitute one batch for the factory doing the processing. Her 10 kgs will be tagged and combined with teas from other farmers waiting in line that evening.

This larger quantity, from a dozen or so farmers/pickers, comprises one batch for processing. This batch is assigned a code, and may be blended with other batches to make the best lot according to the standard for a particular tea. Given varying weather conditions, it is possible to taste minute differences among batches from different days of the week.

I was witness to one such tasting, when batches from consecutive days were cupped to determine the best use of these batches. Ms. Liu’s contribution, therefore, becomes part of a larger batch, with the final product representing the work of various farmers, tea makers and the blender, with the finished lot being the outcome of 2-3 days’ work from all participants.

In this instance, the organic tea gardens are owned by the factory and the farmers are tenants. There are other arrangements by which teas reach an export point from the gardens:

  1. Farmers own the gardens and process the teas they pick. Most of this is for private consumption or to share with others in the village. Not much reaches even the domestic market in China. If one is very prodigious, some of the product may reach tea markets in the local township. If some of the tea does go overseas, the route is opaque since farmers would not have export permits and would not be subject to inspection and quarantine procedures.
  2. Farmers rent plots from a company that pays them for their yield. In these cases, the factory supports the farmers with supplies such as water, organic fertilizers, equipment, etc.
  3. A tea factory hires workers to pick tea from gardens it owns. Here, the factory has direct control over the entire process, from how the gardens are tended, maintenance, plucking, processing to the primary tea stage, and perhaps finishing and packing.
  4. Some factories end their work with primary teas. The final finishing, such as further drying to elevate aroma, sorting, inspection and packing are done at another location.
  5. A tea company has ongoing contracts with several factories in its area, factories that collect teas from their contracted farmers. (For instance, an Anhui company may collect Keemun and green teas from several factories throughout the province.)  From our perspective, factories may be classified according to their level of internationally recognized certification. There are some factories from whom we would not purchase teas even though the teas may be of fine quality, but where there is insufficient documentation of standards being monitored.  (In theory, I suppose I could have carried back a few kilos of a tea being made in a small family operation I visited in Fenggang county in Guizhou. Picturesque as this might be, this would not be very good business practice.)
  6. A broker has contacts with several factories, each with its own specialty. This broker uses his expertise to find the best fit for his customers and is licensed to export teas. Part of his responsibility is to approve those factories and monitor their standards for safe food processing. Teas from factories not approved according to export guidelines (ISO, HACCP, SGS, etc.) may end up in the domestic market only.

My most prized photo from this trip – – the moment, shown at right, when a factory staff immediately pulled a sample from one farmer’s bag of fresh leaves and wrote down the farmer’s name, the date, and assigned a batch number.

This organic processing factory operates under the #2 plan listed above. Beyond the immediate sampling, I was also happy to see locked drawers holding retention samples.

This newly bagged sample and its retention are the first crucial step in building a trail that eventually leads to our warehouse.

Quality and pricing continue to be paramount, but I cannot overemphasize the growing importance of traceability in tea imports if we are to have safe products.

Beguiling as the notion might be, farm-to-table for tea is not a sustainable or reassuring concept here (except perhaps for teas grown in Hawaii and S. Carolina).

In this context, I would offer up two contrasting operations:

  • In the Hubei organic factory mentioned earlier, it was evident that there is validation of procedures being followed. What is meant to be effective in safeguarding the product is being monitored and recorded. The records are available for inspection.
  • In another smaller factory in Fenggang in Guizhou, the operation was run by a family (farmer’s name is An Chen.) There was no doubt here about the husband and wife team’s expertise in green tea processing. There were no clocks in the production room; only the de-enzyming and rolling equipment had time and temperature settings. How long the leaves would be left to wither, the duration and temperature of de-enzyming, the pressure for rolling — all these parameters seemed second nature to the Chens. However, there was no ISO or HACCP plan on record nor familiarity with such guidelines. There was no barrier at the entry to deter pests a( simple basic precaution), no protective gear/accessories, and the SOP seemed dependent simply on the couple’s own experience. I do not mean to devalue their manufacturing knowledge, only to show that there is little oversight in place.

Yes, it all begins with the tea farmers, be they owners, tenants, or workers on the gardens. But the story is just that: the intervening steps and procedural layers after the beginning may be less quaint or striking, but they transform the farmer’s tea into a safe product.

At the organic factory, fresh leaves were being turned in around 6-7 pm, which meant a late shift for the workers. We shared a meal with some of them, who were delighted that I thought the dishes special enough to snap a picture. (Hot pots appear at most meals in this part of the country, shown here in the center and kept warm by a wood burning fire under the table.)

May 3, 2018