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Naturally Farmed Tea Garden is Slowly Disappearing in Yunnan

[2017.04.07] Posted By

Every year I am staying in Yunnan and buying a number of teas. Nowadays I am particularly interested in naturally farmed tea. The definition of the naturally farmed tea is that tea trees are grown as a part of the surrounding ecology and it is independent from human involvement.

Naturally farmed tea for the taste and flavor

We look for naturally farmed tea not just because of safety concern. For safety, I think organic tea is good enough. The naturally farmed tea is grown without fertilizer and pesticide. Tea grows very slowly due to no fertilizer. As a result, tea will accumulate higher concentration of minerals and poly phenols. It gives very long lasting aftertaste, soft drinking feeling and stronger flavor. If one is very particular about the taste, the naturally farmed tea gives another dimension of tasting experience.

For agricultural products such as cereals, vegetables and fruits, it is important to produce ample quantity in order to support the human consumption.
On the other hand, tea is not a staple food to support one’s life but to drink for pleasure or health. So we rather seek for the quality even if the productivity is not very high.

Weeds around the tea tree are inevitable

The natural farming tea is referring to tea tree which completely independent from human involvement. In a way, it is the tea tree which turning into wild. In nature, the wild plants are chronically lack of nitrogen. In modern agriculture, the nitrogen fertilizer is applied in order to boost the growth of plants. However, any natural plant such as trees in the mountain or grasses on the hill are growing very healthy and not needing any fertilizer from human. Those natural/wild plants gained the nitrogen supply from the surrounding ecology. Some plants carry bacteria called Rhizobium on their root. This bacterium is able to absorb nitrogen from air. The nitrogen is circulated through the soil ecology and supplied to tea tree. In other words, weeds growing around the tea tree are inevitable and it must be remained in order to keep tea tree in healthy condition. If there is no weeds surrounding the tea tree, tea tree is dying soon unless fertilizer is applied.

The naturally farmed old tea tree: The tea tree is surrounded by many other trees. If you visiting here for the first time, it is hard to notice that this is a tea garden. All the tea trees are well blended in the nature.

We do look at the ground when we look for a good tea

It is quite simple to identify whether or not the garden is naturally farmed. I observe the condition of the ground. It is less important to look at the size of tea tree. If tea is grown in natural farming method, I can hardly see the soil that expose. The fertilized tea garden is easily noticeable as the ground is dug and soil is being exposed. I have visited unaccountable numbers of tea growing areas in the past. In general, the tea gardens located nearby the village tend to be over taken care. Even if we go to very remote village located deep in the mountain, most of the tea trees nearby their village are fertilized. On the other hand, the tea garden located far away from the village often remains natural as it is not easy for the villagers to carry the fertilizer.

The photo above is the natural farming tea and the photo below is the fertilized tea garden.
The appearance of the ground is absolutely different.

The photo above shows the tea garden was shifted to fertilized garden recently. The ground is dug.

The confusion between organic and naturally farmed tea

In Chinese, the natural farmed tea is called “Sheng Tai Cha” 生態茶. In direct translation, it means “Ecological Tea”. However, after I have visited many tea gardens in Yunnan, I observed that most of people call the fertilized tea garden as a “Sheng Tai Cha” Garden as long as they use organic fertilizer produced from animal feces. With this definition, there is an enormous number of “Sheng Tai” tea garden in Yunnan. To their point of view, the organic fertilizer is acceptable as it is “natural”, but the chemical fertilizer is unacceptable as it is “artificial”.
Ironically, tea grows even more rapidly and vigorously with the organic fertilizer made of animal feces. Once the organic fertilizer is used, the flavor and the taste of tea differ a lot. The flavor of tea becomes lighter, and it tastes astringent and bitter, and the taste becomes less clear.
In fact, if we smell the fresh tealeaf, the difference between the natural farming tea without any fertilizer and with fertilizer is much more obvious. The naturally farmed tea gives very strong floral scent while the fertilized tea gives weaker scent (even if the fertilizer is organic).
I believe we should not call the fertilized tea as “Sheng Tai Cha” because applying fertilizer is somehow interfering or altering the balanced ecology. Since the definition of “Sheng Tai Cha” in China is very vague, it is very important for us to observe the tea garden and to examine fresh tea leaves collected from the tea garden.
In China, nowadays some people use the term of “Ye Fang Cha” 野放茶 instead of Sheng Tai Cha. 野放茶 means “tea tree is left in nature and becoming wild”. This word is used since the word Sheng Tai is less definitive.

The black objects around the tree are the organic fertilizer.

Photo Up and Below: The soil is exposed and there are no natural weeds on the ground. For me this garden is completely far away from natural farming, yet the local people were calling it as “Sheng Tai Cha”.

Exceptional type of fertilizer

Some naturally farmed tea garden in Japan, Darjeeling, Taiwan or some other places in China, the compost produced from the weeds is used. This method is inevitable to maintain the natural farming practice if the tea tree is not grown independently but grown in column style. The compost produced from weeds gives very similar effect to the plants as obtaining nitrogen through the ecology. So I recognize it as one of natural farming styles.

The fertilized tea grows about one to two weeks faster

This year, the tea is growing particularly slow in Yunnan. There is nearly two weeks of delay in tea budding timing. At the moment, we are not even receiving close to 20% of spring tea. Apparently during this timing, staying in tea garden gives me a lot of insight view. I can observe the distinctive difference in growing speed between tea trees grown in different environment. At this timing, the naturally farmed tea only remains very small buds, yet those fertilized tea are producing tea leaves effectively. Usually, the fertilized tea grows about 7 to 14 days faster than natural farming tea.
Many people are fancy with the early-plucked tea and are willing to pay high cost to grab the earliest-harvest tea. But we have to be more cautious. In the early season, the naturally-farmed tea from high mountain or old tea tree is still growing very slowly and tea buds are very small size or not even budding yet. Ironically, tea trees grown near the village tend to be over-fertilized while the tea garden located very far away from their village are often remained natural. When we hike from the village to deeper mountain, obviously the tea trees at the natural farming garden deep in the mountain still remain dormant, while the old and big tea trees grown nearby the village produced a lot of tealeaf and it’s ready for plucking.

The tea tree in the famous area. This photo was taken in Mang Fei.

The naturally farmed tea still remains in very small bad at the moment.

The improvement of infrastructure affects the naturally farmed tea garden

In fact, farmer does not really care whether tea should be of natural farming or not. In a family, their main concern is the total income as it will directly affects their living. If the selling price of fresh tealeaf of naturally-farmed tea and non-naturally farmed tea is the same, they will definitely start fertilizing the tea garden in order to further increase the total output for making a better income.
In recent year, the infrastructure in Yunnan province was improved significantly. It becomes so much easier to access many tea production areas. As the consequence, the unknown tea production area was unveiled and known by many people. Once the production area gets famous and popular, there will be a lot of tourists or amateur tea collectors keep coming to the villages. As they are not very familiar with the quality of tea and the market price, they tend to spend more than the market rate. This situation is somewhat less healthy as a lot of them pay a high amount of money even for fertilized tea. Apparently this causes the famous tea production areas loss the quality.

Understanding the quality of tea from naturally-farmed tea garden indirectly protects the ecological environment

Due to reason mentioned above, I mainly focus on the rural village to search for good material. In those remote villages tourists could hardly visit and tea farmers are mostly depending on the manufacturer who is locally situated in or nearby their village. In the rural village, the main income of tea farmer is to sell the fresh tealeaf to the manufacturer. The selling price of their fresh tealeaf is decided by the manufacturer. Eventually the behavior of tea farmer is driven by how the manufacturer set the purchasing price. I know some manufacturers who care a lot about the quality. They know the naturally-farmed tea is ultimately the right quality. So, they offer higher price to purchase the naturally-farmed tea. For example, they will pay a few times more for the real naturally-farmed tea than the fertilized tea. Eventually, the total income for the farmer is greater if they maintain the naturally-farmed tea instead of applying fertilizer to produce more quantity but selling at much cheaper price. As such, farmers will maintain the naturally-farmed tea garden. This relationship is very important in order to keep up the ideal environment and balanced ecology.
From my point of view, we also bear the responsibility to maintain the natural farming tea garden. It is important to appreciate the naturally-farmed tea and pay adequate amount for it. If a buyer appreciates the quality of naturally-farmed tea and creates a demand in the marketplace, the manufacturer will continue their effort to maintain the supply of naturally-farmed tea. For us, the customer who understands the quality of naturally-farmed tea and appreciates its value is essential in order to keep up the steady purchase volume on natural farming tea. With increasing number of people recognize and appreciate the value of naturally-farmed tea will eventually motivates the local people to preserve the ecological environment.

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