Sustainable Tea: A Conversation with Bob Jacobson

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World Tea and Coffee Consumption

Since tea was discovered in China more than 3000 years ago, it has united human kind all over the world. According to legend, Emperor Shen Nong was boiling water to drink in the garden when a leaf from an overhanging tea tree drifted into his pot, thereby boiling the first pot of tea. Tea made its way to Japan in the 7th century, where it was so regarded that religious ceremonies were devised to accompany its enjoyment. It eventually made its way to England in the 17th century, where it was first enjoyed as the beverage of choice by royalty and aristocrats. Today, tea is the most popular beverage in the world besides water, with growers located in 35 countries. Consumption of tea jumped 60% between 1993 and 2010, with even stronger growth predicted in the next half century. More than 3 billion cups of tea are consumed every day, with Turkey, Morocco, and the United Kingdom being the biggest per capita tea drinkers (Forum for the Future). In the United States, the Boston Tea Party put an early damper on tea’s popularity, making way for coffee as the most popular beverage. But overcaffeination and health concerns have even American consumers turning to tea. In the last decade, the amount of tea consumed by Americans grew 22.5% while coffee consumption dropped 1.9% and experts predict that tea could overtake coffee sales as early as 2017 (LA Times 2013). Drinking tea has also been shown to help with weight loss, improve cardiovascular health, reduce cancer, and fight aging! (Huffington Post 2013)

As a Chinese immigrant raised as a Mormon, my own experience of tea has been on both ends of the spectrum. I remember my grandfather in Shanghai brewing a large cup of oolong tea every morning. Drinking tea was not only habitual, but it was a cultured thing to do, like listening to classical music. The leaves would swirl and settle to the bottom of the amber colored liquid which he never went without if he was at home. The inside of every cup in the house was stained by a “tea ring” that no amount of washing could take out. When my family joined the LDS church in Maryland, the scriptures forbade the drinking of hot beverages, which were interpreted to be tea and coffee. Tea was the sticking point for would be converts to the Mormon church. Once the prospective Chinese converts learned that they had to give up tea, no amount of discussion about the promise of eternal life could persuade them towards baptism. But some Chinese did give up tea for God and church, and for a while my family was one of them. We banished the teas to the back of cupboards, and drank juice and herbal infusions instead. But that did not stop our uninformed friends from giving us expensive teas as gifts, and as Asian custom dictates, we always accepted them. The result was that we had a large collection of gourmet teas that we didn’t know what to do with. As time went by, whether our faith in Mormonism waned or pressures of culture and habit became too hard to resist, my family started drinking tea again, and this time there was no turning back.

Tea was the only drink that was permitted at the Vipassana Meditation Center in Shelburne Massachusetts where I spent 10 days searching for enlightenment. Friday afternoon tea was what we drank at Smith College as students and professors celebrated the completion of another week of classes. At Findhorn Community in Scotland, I had the pleasure of serving tea for a week for a community of 150 that drank tea five times a day. It was a full time job.

Like any other commodity, the widespread enjoyment of tea is not without environmental consequences. As human population grows, more wildlife habitat will be converted into land for agriculture, livestock, and commodities like tea and coffee. Growing tea requires a lot of water, a resource that is estimated to be 40% higher in demand than in supply by 2030. Withering, drying, grading and packing tea also requires a lot of energy. As much as 4 to 18 kwh of energy is needed to produce one kilogram of tea compared to 6.3 kwh required to make a kilogram of steel. Tea is a delicate plant that is sensitive to the climate change. An increase in temperature of 1 or 2 degrees Celsius would change its growth pattern and viability where tea is currently grown. Places that are growing tea at lower elevations may need to move to higher altitudes, pushing out wildlife that is migrating out of lower elevations for the same reasons. Tea plants that are stressed by drought and climate change may also require more pesticides, with accompanying negative impacts on wildlife and human health (Tea 2030).

What can be done to ensure the sustainability of this cultural heritage as well as preserve the ecosystems of the earth? Luckily, the growing practice of agroforestry, the intentional intercropping of forests with crops, shows that crops and forests can coexist and benefit from each other. Traditional farming methods destroy forests so that crops can be planted on flat open fields. In agroforestry, crops are grown in the shade of existing forests or planted next to rows of trees. Agroforestry improves soil conditions, provides wildlife habitat, and improves crop yields.

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Julie and Bob Jacobson

Tea farmer Bob Jacobson cultivates a nine acre tea farm with six varietals of Camellia sinensis on the big island of Hawaii using entirely organic processes while also conserving the native rainforest it is cultivated on. His tea plants are grown in the shade of the native rainforest trees in Hawaiian volcanic soil. From this biodiverse environment, he produces a subtly flavored white tea that takes you to the lush, pure hillside of Hawaii bursting with tropical flowers and birdsong. Bob was so excited to talk to me about tea that he called me at 6am on a bright June morning while enjoying his first cup of tea for the day. In the following interview, he answers some of my questions regarding sustainable tea farming.

Clara: What is your background and how did you become a tea grower?

Bob: Before I came to Hawaii, I grew up in Minnesota and trained and worked as a register nurse at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. In 1981 my wife Julie and I came to Hawaii for vacation. We liked it so much that we came back after I found a job as a Register Nurse and my wife got a deaf education teaching job in Hawaii. I was concerned about the destruction of the native rainforest, much of which was being torn down for farming, housing developments, or wood to fuel power plants. So my wife and I ended up serving a total of ten years on the Hawaii County Council to try to change things to preserve our forest ecosystems. I also recognized that people have to be able to make a living and I have tried to demonstrate that we can grow high value crops in the native understory. As I traveled in China and other tea growing countries, I grew convinced that the rainforest could be preserved if tea could be planted as an understory crop by small family farms. By planting crops under the trees, crops and the forest can have a symbiotic relationship.

In the beginning it was very hard. I had no experience with farming so first I had to learn how to take care of the soil and how to propagate tea. I had help from my wife and a visiting agronomist. Initially I killed around 50 tea plants, but eventually I figured out how to keep them alive. We had already settled on a nine acre piece of rainforest on the slopes of Mauna Loa in the Puna District 1000 feet above sea level. The forest is filled with ohia and kopiko trees, ferns, and orchids. I planted the teas in the understory, sometimes on top of dead ferns, and spread 4-6 inches of mulch over the soil. I started with 4000 tea plants and now I have about 7000 plants.

Everything was going fine until the second year when a herd of feral pigs came on the farm and tore up everything I had planted. They uprooted every one of my tea plants so that each one was only hanging on by a hair. I thought I’d lost the whole enterprise. But I replanted the tea plants and most of them survived. The pigs had fertilized and mixed the mulch and I ended up with better soil. I was able to plant another 400 plants in areas the pigs had cleared. A neighbor told me that if I put dog hair around my farm, the pigs will stay away. I went to the pet groomer and spread dog hair all around the farm, and now the pigs don’t come any more. They must believe I have a huge dog!

After two years of growing the plants, I started experimenting with processing white tea. I tried many different plucking styles, processing in different ways and sending many, many batches of my white tea to tasters around the world. When Jane Pettigrew judged my tea to be “exquisite”, I stopped trying to make a better white tea to sell. I produced about 5 kilos of very good tea that year and I hope to produce about 25 kilos this year.

Clara: What sustainable practices do you use on your farm?

Hawaii Rainforest Tea Farm

Jacobson Tea Farm

Bob: My tea is certified USDA organic. On a conventional farm, the forest would be bulldozed to make room for the crops. This creates erosion and dries out the soil. None of the trees in my forest were cut to create this farm. The last time lava covered my land was only 400-500 years ago so I have no real soil, only muck and mulch. The quality of the soil is crucial and trees and native plants help to harbor earthworms, insects, and microorganisms that are all essential for soil health. I fertilize the soil with chicken manure, compost, and other organic products. The mulch I apply is made from processed local landscape waste and used cardboard boxes. I have bees that pollinate the tea plants and the birds to keep pests in control. I pull weeds by hand and pick the buds and flowers by hand to keep the tea plants producing leaves. The harvested leaves are dried in the oven at 104 degrees F (40 degrees Celsius) to create my white tea. This low temperature preserves all the enzymes and aromatics.

The tea that I craft is a premium product that is as pure as it can be. The enriched volcanic soil, abundant rain, shade trees, and indigenous microorganisms make this the ideal environment for growing tea. The antioxidants and health giving properties of tea are also fully expressed in my teas.

Clara: What is the difference between white tea and green tea?

Bob: The type of tea you have depends on the level of oxidation of the leaves. Japanese green teas are withered and then steamed, Chinese green tea is roasted before it is dried. Black tea is wilted for a long period before it is roasted. This allows the leaves to ferment and oxidize, adding a strong flavor. White tea is composed of only the most immature leaves and processed minimally without oxidation. I like white tea the best because it tastes the most natural. It also preserves most of the health giving properties of the tea.

Clara: How much tea do you sell? Are you making a living from doing this?

Bob: I’ve only been doing this for five years so it’s been more of an investment than an income generator. Last year I produced 10 kilos of tea and sold all of it at $1 a gram; this year I’ll probably produce 25 kilos. I’m investing in a commercial kitchen and hope to be able to run tours of the farm eventually. I retired a few years ago and get retirement benefits so I’m able to put money into this business. I hire people to help with the planting and the harvesting, and paper work takes up a huge amount of time. I don’t do a lot of marketing or retailing. I don’t expect to make a huge profit but will be breaking even soon.

Clara: What is most rewarding about what you do?

Bob: Everything about it is rewarding. I get to drink the best, most delicious tea every day. I get to live in this beautiful rainforest which I’m helping to preserve. I love the people that I work with. Tea drinkers are such a nice, civilized group of people, and sharing a cup of tea is great way to get to know someone. Tea culture contains a wonderful tradition of literature, art, dance, rituals and I am always learning something new. Even the process of weeding my tea garden brings unexpected delights. Several months ago I was laboring in the fields and took a brief break to straighten my neck and look around for the birds that were singing to me. I looked up and saw a long trailing orchid flower cascading down from the ohia trees. I had never seen the flower before and several days later I went to search out the blossom again. It was gone but the plant itself is out there waiting to surprise me with another blossom sometime in the future.

Clara: How should your tea be brewed?rochester 6 2012  tealet photos 035

Bob: White tea is best if brewed in hot water at 175º F (boiling temp is 212 F).  Add 2 tbsp (2g) of tea to 8 oz of water and steep for 4-5 minutes. The first brew is clear and light in color with a light aroma. Successive brews are more robust in color and flavor.  I suggest brewing the leaves at least three more times. I use a glass coffee press so I can admire the perfect leaves and buds as they brew. Unlike many commercial teas, 100 percent Hawaii grown white tea does not grow bitter with over-brewing.

Purchase Hawaii Rainforest Spring White Tea