Tea is grown in a semi-tropical, mountainous climate in rural, sometimes remote, areas around the world. Tea is grown in some of the most beautiful environments on earth, but the conditions under which tea is grown are often difficult. We’ve come to recognize that a balance is needed between organic, natural, “rational,” and conventional growing practices.
Modern organic farming is only about 20 years old but is coming along rapidly. It is based on using organic manures, and plant-based fertilizers and pest repellents, as well as intensive hand-work. The yield of tea per acre is 20 – 40% less than conventional farming.
Although western markets have driven the demand for organic tea, most tea farmers themselves prefer organic practices, understanding that these practices are better for the land, as well as their health and the health of their families. Despite this, organically-grown tea remains a tiny, but growing, percentage of the world market for tea. To be certified organic requires three to five years of chemical-free farming, buffer zones between the organic farm and neighboring property, laboratory testing of the soil and the plant, and inspections of the tea processing factory. This typically costs around $10,000. There are several third-party businesses which certify organic growing—each with a slightly different set of standards. A tea grower is faced with getting organically certified in whichever countries they export to, meaning that a farmer could end up having to pay for multiple certifications.
Natural farming is what Strand Tea calls tea growing by farmers who use organic practices, but cannot afford the official certification[s] of organic. These are often small family farms without investors or corporate resources.
Rational farming. We first came across this in the pristine foothills of Darjeeling. While embracing the practices and ideas of organic farming as a whole, occasionally a farmer will decide to isolate a small section of a tea garden which has become infested or nitrogen-poor, and use chemically-based methods to control the specific situation. The goal is to prevent the pest invasion from overtaking the entire tea garden. The harvest from the isolated section is destroyed while the plants are rehabilitated.
Conventional farming. The important thing to distinguish here is commercial grown teas versus premium grown teas. Commercial grown teas are by far the major part of teas sold on the world market. They typically are grown at lower elevations, on flatter land in a homogeneous planting environment. They are treated with routine applications of chemical-based fertilizers and pesticides, and are machine-picked. The purpose is to increase crop yields. Does this mean that these teas are unsafe? Most importing countries have strict regulations regarding the amount of chemical residue and other contaminants in tea. In the US the US Dept of Agriculture is charged with inspecting and ensuring the safety of tea. We consider commercially grown teas to be generally safe.
Lower elevations and homogeneous crop plantings are much more susceptible to pests and soil depletion.
Premium teas are grown at higher elevations (generally above 4.000 feet), in smaller patches within tea gardens, under purer air, soil and water conditions, and are hand-harvested. Most tea gardens producing premium teas practice inter-cropping, use indigenous, natural pest-repellent plants, and contain a variety of tea hybrids (cultivars). This reduces the risk of crop destruction while increasing the variety of natural tastes in the final tea leaf.