Tea production in the United States
Although Camellia sinensis can be grown in warmer parts of the United States, currently the US mainland has only a very small number of commercial tea gardens: a relatively large, fully mechanized plantation in Charleston, South Carolina, a smaller operation that picks its tea by hand in Burlington, Washington, and an even smaller farm in Fairhope, Alabama. Off the mainland, there is a collective of roughly 40 small growers in Hawaii.
As of 2013, Washington, South Carolina, and Hawaii Teas are available through mail order and online purchases.
Commercial tea cultivation in the United States has been attempted since 1744 when tea seeds were sent to the Trust Garden in Savannah. In 1863, the New York Times reported the discovery of tea plants growing natively in Western Maryland and Pennsylvania. The first recorded successful cultivation of the tea plant in the United States is recorded as growing on Skidaway Island near Savannah in 1772. Junius Smith succeeded in growing tea commercially in Greenville, South Carolina, from 1848 until his death in 1853. Dr. Alexis Forster oversaw the next short-lived attempt in Georgetown, South Carolina, from 1874 until his death in 1879.
The New York Times report of natively growing tea plants sparked an interest in cultivating the plants commercially. In 1880 the US Government hired John Jackson, an experienced tea planter in India, to cultivate tea plants planted 30 years earlier in Liberty County, Georgia. When this proved unsuccessful, some 200 acres of land near Summerville, South Carolina were leased for an experimental station, using seeds from China, India, and Japan. A change of commissioners in 1884 resulted in a report faulting the climate as unsuitable, and the Newington Plantation near Summerville was abandoned.
Congress later appropriated $10,000 for a second experimental tea farm in the Summerville area, called the Pinehurst Plantation, located just one mile from the previously terminated effort, and received Patent Office permission to experiment with plants left at the older government station. Under the leadership of Dr. Charles Shepard, Newington Plantation became quite productive; am 1887 'New York Times' report credited annual production at 12,000 pounds. By 1893 the Pinehurst plants were sufficiently established for the first leaf plucking. Dr. Shepard secured laborers for the fields by opening a school and making tea-picking part of its curriculum, essentially ensuring a force of child labor while providing them with an education they might not otherwise obtain. Dr. Shepard's final report indicated the chief expense in the production of tea was the gathering of the leaf, which amounted to approximately 50% of labour costs, but this did not preclude the profitable production of the crop even when sold at prices as low as half the cost of imported leaf  However, domestic shipping rates made selling his tea to major markets in the US difficult. These "made it cheaper for Chicagoans, for example, to buy tea from China than from Carolina" Nevertheless, the Pinehurst produced award winning teas until Dr. Shepard's death in 1915. The garden closed after Shepard's death and Pinehurst lay unattended until 1963.
In 1963, The Lipton Tea Company, worried about the instability of the third world countries that produce tea, paid to have the surviving tea plants at Pinehurst moved to a former potato farm on Wadmalaw Island. Lipton operated an experimental tea farm until it was sold in 1987 to Mack Fleming and Bill Hall, who converted the experimental farm into a working tea garden. The Charleston Tea Plantation utilized a converted tobacco harvester to mechanically harvest the tea. The Charleston Tea Plantation sold tea mail order known as American Classic Tea and also produced Sam's Choice Instant Tea, sold through Sam's Clubs. American Classic Tea has been the official tea of the White House since 1987. Losing money and nearly bankrupt, in 2003 the plantation was sold to Bigelow Tea Company at a court auction for $1.28 million and was temporarily closed for renovation in order to attract tourists and boost its revenues. The garden reopened in January 2006 and gives free tours to the public.
Like most plantations, each tea plant at the Charleston Tea Plantation comes from a clone rather than a seed to keep plant characteristics controlled. In this factory, black, oolong, and green tea is made; active harvesting takes place between May and October. The hybrid cotton picker/tobacco harvester modified by Fleming is used to harvest from the upper parts of the plants without injuring them, but cannot do so with the precision of hand-picking, necessary for the highest grades of tea. Inside the factory, leaves are placed on a withering bed for 12–18 hours. Natural air blows over the leaves to reduce the moisture from 80 percent to 68 percent. Then the leaves are chopped, sent to the oxidation bed for 55 minutes, then baked in an oven for about 28 minutes. (These times vary slightly depending on the moisture content of the leaves.) Then the sticks and fibers are sorted out and the remaining leaves are packaged.
As part of the Lipton study in South Carolina, an out-station was established in Fairhope, Alabama as well as other select locations in the Southern US. The material in Fairhope was destroyed by a hurricane not long after its inception and was abandoned. However, the out-station supervisor rescued a few, seed and cuttings from which were used to start a private plantation nearby now known as the Fairhope Tea Plantation, owned by Donnie Barratt, the son of the out-station supervisor. Tea is still produced at the plantation in small quantities, sold through a nearby gift shop
Tea was introduced in Hawaii in 1887 and was commercially grown until 1892. While it is not clear why the tea was eventually discontinued, historians believe higher wages compared to other prime tea growing areas in Asia and Africa were among the deciding factors. Lower production costs of tea's main rival, coffee, also helped prevent it from establishing a foothold.
In the 1960s Lipton and A&B formed a joint venture to investigate the possibility of growing tea commercially in Hawaii. Both companies decided not to open gardens on the Island, but rather to open gardens in Latin America.
In 2000 horticulturist Francis Zee found a strain of Camellia sinensis, the tea plant, that can flourish in the tropical climate and volcanic soil of Hawaii. A joint study of commercially growing tea in Hawaii was started by University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources and University of Hawaii at Hilo College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
With the decline of Hawaii's sugar industry, tea cultivation is seen as a possible replacement crop. In 2003 Hawaii had an estimated 5 acres (20,000 m2) of land producing tea but by 2005 that number jumped to roughly 80 acres (320,000 m2). Tea production in Hawaii is expected to triple by 2008.
In 2004, the Hawaii Tea Society was formed from about 40 members, many of whom had started backyard tea farms to promote tea grown in Hawaii.
Tea Farms in Development
- FiLoLi Farms in Brookhaven, Mississippi has started tea cultivation and will be marketing soon. FiLoLi Tea Farm officially changed its name to The Great Mississippi Tea Company in May 2014.
- Finger Lakes Tea Company in upstate New York has also started planting tea plants and plans to have product available in 2016.
- "Hawai'i tea growers are 'learning as we go'". Honolulu Advertiser, April 25, 2005.
- teamuse.com article
- Walcott, Susan M. (May 1999). "Tea Production in South Carolina". Southeastern Geographer 39 (1): 61–74.
- Shepard, C. 1899. Report #61: Tea Culture: The experiment in South Carolina. USDA, US Government Printing Office, Washington DC.
- Franklin PM, Mikula N. Backroads of South Carolina: a Guide to South Carolina’s Most Scenic Backroad Adventures. Voyageur Press, 2006 ISBN 0-7603-2640-1 p. 37
- "Tea business sipping at success". Augusta Chronicle, July 14, 1997.
- sallysplace.com article on American Classic tea
- "Bigelow buys South Carolina tea plantation". USA Today, April 11, 2003.
- Bigelow Tea website information
- Watch it Made in the USA page on Charleston Tea Plantation
- Mellican, N. 2012, October 25. Growing Tea in Mississippi. Message posted to http://teatra.de/tea-forums/topic/growing-tea-in-mississippi/
- Marlena. 2011, August 12. Take me out to the tea farm. Retrieved from http://teafortoday.blogspot.com/2011/08/take-me-out-to-tea-farm.html
- "Beyond The Garden Gate with Donnie Barrett and a cup of tea". Gulf Coast Newspapers, October 2, 2012.
- "Growing a new industry in the back yard: With some help and luck, Big Island tea may be, well, the next coffee". Honolulu Star-Bulletin, July 8, 2001.
- Small Scale Tea Growing and Processing in Hawaii 2003 publication of Cooperative Extension Service of the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, University of Hawai'i at Manoa
- "Skagit County has West Coast's first tea plantation". Everett Herald, September 11, 2007.
- "Farm ventures into exotic yet local product: tea". Seattle Times, August 17, 2009.
- "Gardening with Ciscoe: A visit to Sakuma Brothers' tea farm". KING-TV, June 29, 2013.
- "Oregon's First Tea Crop Goes To Market". Oregon Public Broadcasting, September 05, 2013.
- "Time for Tea: Can a novel crop take root in Oregon?". Edible Portland, Fall 2013.
- "Oregon farm turns to tea". Oregon Business, February 2013.
- Lasseter, Cheryl (October 4, 2012). "Brookhaven farm will grow first MS tea crop". Mississippi News Now.
- Henderson, Kim (October 18, 2013). "First in the state: Groundbreaking held for local tea farm". Brookhaven Daily Leader.
- Lasseter, Cheryl (October 4, 2012). "Brookhaven farm will grow first MS tea crop". WFGX.
- Collins-Smith, Susan (July 2, 2014). "Mississippi’s first tea farm off to good start". Mississippi Agricultural News (Mississippi State University).
- Bree, Samantha (May 22, 2013). "Growing Tea In Upstate New York". Ithaca Times.
- Miller, Jim (March 27, 2014). "Finger Lakes Tea Company opens in Junius". Finger Lakes Times.
- Hawaii Tea Society
- Interview with Eliah Halpenny, Hawaiian Tea Farmer
- Charleston Tea Plantation website
- teamuse.com article on growing tea in the U.S. and Charleston Tea Plantation in particular.