Although Camellia sinensis can be grown in warmer parts of the United States, currently the US mainland has only two commercial tea gardens: a relatively large, fully mechanized plantation in Charleston, South Carolina and a small operation in Burlington, Washington. Off the mainland, there is a collective of roughly 40 small growers in Hawaii.
As of 2010, 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. 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. In 1863, the New York Times reported the discovery of tea plants growing natively in Western Maryland and Pennsylvania.
The New York Times report of natively growing tea plants sparked an interest in cultivating the plants commercially. The US Government planted an experimental farm outside Summerville, South Carolina. They ran the program from 1884 until 1888. They concluded that South Carolina's climate was too unstable to sustain the tea crop. The Department of Agriculture issued a report in 1897 that "estimates the minimum cost about eight times as much to pick one pound of tea in South Carolina as that paid for the same service in Asia." In 1888 Dr. Charles Shepard established the Pinehurst Tea Plantation close to the government's farm. 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. 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 it was sold to Bigelow Tea Company at a court auction for $1.28 millionand was temporarily closed for renovation it 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.
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 and South 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 the Hawaii's sugar industry, tea cultivation is seen as a possible replacement crop. In 2003 Hawaii had an estimated 5 acres of land producing tea but by 2005 that number jumped to roughly 80 acres. 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.
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- ↑ Honoluluadvertiser.com article April 25, 2005
- ↑ teamuse.com article
- ↑ 3.0 3.1 Franklin PM, Mikula N. Backroads of South Carolina: a Guide to South Carolina’s Most Scenic Backroad Adventures. Voyageur Press, 2006 ISBN 0760326401 p. 37
- ↑ sallysplace.com article on American Classic tea
- ↑ USA Today April 11, 2003
- ↑ Bigelow Tea website information
- ↑ Watch it Made in the USA page on Charleston Tea Plantation
- ↑ starbulletin.com article 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