Mississippi tea

Photo courtesy of The Great Mississippi Tea Company

Sweet tea has long been a staple of Southern culture, but you would be hard pressed to make a batch from locally grown tea – or even tea grown on American soil. Thankfully, a tea revolution has begun in Lincoln County, where Jason McDonald has planted seeds for the state’s first commercial tea farm: The Great Mississippi Tea Company. “We had to start from the ground up, but a lot of people are rooting for us,” McDonald says. One of those people is Rebecca Bates from the Mississippi State University (MSU) extension office. “I think Jason has hit on a great new crop,” says Bates, who likens tea to the once-revolutionary blueberry plant that thrives in Mississippi today. To support the fledgling company, she assembled a group of specialists from MSU – led by Dr. Guihong Bi – to study tea plants from around the world. As it turns out, tea – which comes from the Camellia sinensis plant – makes a surprising amount of sense for Mississippi. It requires little soil amendment and is hardy by nature. Plus, tea plants can be harvested every two to three weeks – and can produce up to 100 years. McDonald plans to have another 30,000 plants in the ground by spring 2015. Eventually, he hopes to turn at least 170 acres into an organic tea farm, but patience is key. “You can produce up to three row crops a year and get an immediate return, but tea is different,” he says. “It takes three to five years for a tea plant to reach full maturity.” By then, he hopes to open a processing plant in Brookhaven. The facility will produce primarily black teas but can meet any market demand – from green tea to oolong. “All of the tea in the world comes from the same plant,” McDonald explains. “The difference is in how you process it.” Though labor costs have kept U.S. farmers from competing in the commodity tea market, McDonald aims to edge his way into the growing specialty tea market, which commands higher prices. “Specialty tea is a $4 billion industry in the U.S.,” McDonald says. “This market is almost recession-proof.” If tea’s time has come, Mississippi stands to gain jobs, crop diversity and even tourism. “The potential for agritourism is huge,” says Bates, who envisions tours, tea tastings and workshops. “It seems like the whole world is interested in this project.”

See Also:  Know Your Agriculture

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