Tea Party

March 11, 2012

If you read the blog last week, it will not surprise you too much to learn that ten days ago I was standing on an impossibly steep mountainside in Taiwan. I was visiting a tea plantation—actually one of two tea research centers maintained by ROC Ministry of Agriculture. In the spirit of The History Channel, I could use this occasion to launch into a brief lesson about the ROC, which was established in 1912 and is not to be confused with the PRC. I’ve learned some interesting things about the ROC on my two trips to Taiwan, and about 30 seconds ago I learned that if you Google ROC all you get are links to a mid-90s TV show or discussions of the mythical bird that destroyed Sinbad the sailor’s ship. So maybe I’ll skip the digression.

If I got the story straight, the use of the word ‘plantation’ may be a bit misleading in the case of Taiwan. It seems that what you need to be a tea producer in the ROC is secure access to say 5 or 10 acres of mountain slope, often terraced, and about $10,000 of equipment for rolling and drying the tea. The tea plants look like simple hedges about 1-1½ meters high. The pitch of the hedges ranges from steep, as in you are leaning forward a bit to walk up it, to precipitous, as in a set of terraces much more vertical than any staircase you ever climbed. Each leaf is picked by hand, and then begins a process of consisting of alternating steps of exsiccation, fermentation and various forms of mixing, tossing and rolling. All this is done “on farm” so to speak, and the end product is then graded before being sold to tea buyers. The picture I got is that while these tea producers are doing okay by Taiwanese standards (which are pretty darn close to U.S. standards) they are not the kind of Big Daddy bigwigs I associate with the word ‘plantation.’

In the spirit of A&E, I could use this occasion to bring up Burl Ives portrayal of Big Daddy in Richard Brooks’ 1958 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (also starring Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor), except that if you Google “Big Daddy” what you get is a 1999 film starring Adam Sandler. So maybe I’ll skip the digression, and just move right on to the reason why I decided to write this blog.

They were putting organic fertilizer on the tea plants the first couple of days in March, which led me to ask about organic tea and pesticides. The “tea guy”, who was explaining all this in Chinese, told me that while things are nice right now, if you come back in June, these tea plants will be covered with insects. So yes, they do use pesticides. This is not organic tea, despite its reputation for high quality. In fact, the organic tea in Taiwan is not very highly regarded. So I decided to do a little research on organic tea, and I came up with this little gem from the Journal of Guangxi Agriculture:

Owing to the bottleneck problem in technology that constraints the development of organic tea production, the technique system of standardized production and management of organic tea are studied in terms of the environmental quality of organic tea production base, production technique, processing technique and product criteria based on standardized technique system of organic tea in this paper.

Maybe it reads better in Chinese. In the spirit of Discovery Channel, I could use this occasion to bust the myth about the incommensurability of translation thesis advanced by Thomas Kuhn, but when I Google ‘Kuhn’ what I get are pressure cookers. So I’ll skip that digression, too. When I Google “organic tea” I get page after page of people trying to sell me organic tea over the Internet. So the protestations of my friend from the ROC Ministry of Agriculture to the contrary, organic tea does exist. If you believe the advertising, it is produced by sturdy women using artisanal practices—actually not that different from what the ROC Ministry of Agriculture guy was describing, only it seems that some of them do use pesticides.

Which leaves me with…

Not all that much, really. Should you be seeking out organic tea? I have no idea. And for those of you who Googled ‘tea party’ expecting some discussion of U.S. Presidential politics, sorry for the digression.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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