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Business Observer Friday, May 25, 2018 5 months ago

With citrus in peril, entrepreneurs and researchers turn to a new crop

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While the orange is still king, some Florida business owners and researchers foresee a new crop in Florida's future: tea. The road ahead involves more homework and a full cup of patience.
by: Grier Ferguson Staff Writer

When people think of Florida agriculture, most think of citrus.

For generations, oranges and grapefruit have been the pride of the Sunshine State. But citrus greening — along with damage from hurricanes and other storms — has hit the industry hard for over a decade.

In response, farmers, researchers and entrepreneurs across the state are looking to other crops and ideas — not necessarily as a substitute for citrus, but as something that could add to Florida’s agricultural landscape. Olive oil, for example, has gotten a lot of recent media attention. Another, even more novel, new crop on the Florida horizon? Tea. 

The potential of tea as a Florida crop isn’t a quick fix. The path ahead will involve more than a pound of patience and years of research. But business owners and university researchers are pursuing the plant — and seeing the possibilities.

Kelly Hackman, owner of The White Heron Tea & Gifts in Pasco County’s New Port Richey, is interested in growing tea herself. “The U.S. is 1,000 years behind in growing tea,” she says. “Other places have been growing it for over a dozen generations.” Now she’s on a mission to learn everything she can about tea from reading about the plant’s history, visiting people in other parts of the U.S. who are growing it and talking with researchers studying it. Hackman also hopes to one day create an experience-based tourism business around tea. 

Mark Wemple. Kelly Hackman owns The White Heron Tea & Gifts in downtown New Port Richey.

A May 1 tea field day hosted by University of Florida researchers and held in Citra, south of Gainesville,  gave people including Hackman the chance to hear the latest on Florida tea research. Brantlee Richter, assistant professor of plant pathology at UF, and Bala “Saba” Rathinasabapathi, a professor in horticultural sciences, poured out their tea crop findings. 

The roughly 50 people who attended were told about varieties growing well in their tests and given an assessment of the challenges with growing tea in Florida.

When she got back to her desk after the field day, Richter already had an email from someone asking her where to get tea plants. “A lot of people are just anxious to get started with plants in the ground, and I couldn’t be happier with that,” she says. “The more people we get out there experimenting and talking about experimenting, the faster the knowledge will spread.”

In the field

A graduate student at UF prompted the research into tea, Richter says. The student, James Orrock, who is studying plant pathology, is a fourth-generation citrus grower and was intrigued by the prospect of growing tea in Florida. "We're desperate for a solution or any other crops that can be grown here," he says. 

The thinking, Richter says, is that tea might be part of a large patchwork of plants that could replace, in part, citrus. 

Orrock agrees. "While we don't expect tea to replace citrus or even come close to replacing citrus, I think it will be grown here and help to diversify the farms." 

Because there hasn’t been a market analysis performed yet for U.S. tea production, Richter says there’s a chicken-and-egg problem with funding. “Everyone wants to see whether it will make enough money before providing funding,” she says. But first, the plants have to be tested.

There’s another what-comes-first problem, too. Nursery growers are hearing murmurs of tea interest, Richter says, but there’s not enough of a market for them to dive in. “There’s no one producing tea plants in the U.S. at the scale someone needed for farmers to put them in the ground,” she says. “There are lots of chicken-and-egg problems in any new crop.”

UF researchers have received two grants for testing — one for $200,000 and one for $60,000. Now UF is testing eight varieties of tea plants that have been in the ground for two years. The plants are in full Florida sun at the Citra experiment station, and Richter says it’s “the harshest test we could put them to.” Two of the varieties are doing very well.

But there’s more research to be done. Richter, in a presentation last year at a Florida Organic Growers meeting, offered another egg metaphor. Says Richter: “In a session on new crops, I started out with a graphic on the emergence of a bird from egg to nestling to fledgling to adult bird. Everything else at this session is in the fledgling state. We’re at egg.”

Another Cup of Tea

Coming at the opportunity from another side, Hackman, in Pasco County, opened The White Heron Tea & Gifts in downtown New Port Richey in January 2016.

It wasn’t all about tea from the get-go, though. “I did a lot of research and reading on how to bring people in,” Hackman says. “If you have another reason for going, now you’re making it dual-purpose, and the likelihood of them spending money in your shop is increased.”

When her husband was in Tampa one day, he came across a tearoom and sent his wife a photo of it. Hackman started thinking a tearoom could be a good addition to her shop. But at the time, she didn’t drink tea or even like the taste of it. "If you’re going to have a business, you have to walk the walk. I didn’t have a background in tea, and my family wasn’t tea drinkers," she says. "I grew up thinking tea was a bag from (some) commercial in a grocery store.”

Hackman took classes through the World Tea Academy, connected with distributors and tasted a variety of teas. “It opened a whole world that is not commercial-based tea. The flavor of loose-leaf tea is totally different. I never knew this world even existed.”

Today, people come to her combination tearoom and gift shop from Lakeland, Palm Harbor, Sarasota and St. Petersburg. “It became a destination-type experience, and it made the gift shop successful.”

Both sides of the business are doing well, she says. Since opening, Hackman tripled the square footage of the store and doubled the size of the tearoom.

Hackman currently sources tea through distributors. But she’s thinking about adding anew tea source — herself. 

On a Mission

Hackman is diving deep into learning how she could start a New Port Richey tea plantation. “It became a mission of mine to figure out how I could do this.”

Recently she traveled to Mississippi to attend a U.S. League of Tea Growers conference. During the conference, she had the chance to tour The Great Mississippi Tea Co. in Brookhaven, Miss. and learn more from one farmer, Jason McDonald, about how he’s built a U.S. tea farm operation. 

Jenny Franklin, owner of High Springs Orchard in Alachua County, shares Hackman’s interest in growing tea. Franklin has 10 acres of fruit trees at her orchard and also attended the UF tea field day.

Franklin is originally from China, a country that has been a force in the tea industry. “To me, I am more familiar with tea than coffee,” she says. “I was very surprised when I came to the United States.” She asked herself, “Why does no one grow tea?”

Franklin is about to tackle the next steps of her tea journey: talk to nurseries, get plants and start growing.

Time to Steep

At one time, Hackman had a vision of a large piece of property filled with tea plants. Now she’s thinking more compact. “I don’t necessarily need 150 acres to be able to make an impact on the tea industry in the United States,” she says. She’d like to purchase five to seven acres in New Port Richey for her tea farm. There she would grow tea, process it and offer agritourism experiences — tours, yoga, meditation and even wedding receptions.

“Challenge accepted by the state of Florida. We’re going to produce some tea.” — Kelly Hackman, owner, The White Heron Tea & Gifts 

She thinks scores of Florida growers aren’t lining up to grow tea because of a key issue — patience. “A lot of people can’t sit on a product for five or six years waiting for a return on investment," she says. "If you’re just looking for a way to make money quick on a crop, it’s not going to be tea at all.”

For those who can do it, she thinks it could be worth it and bring a long-term return.

Hackman brought back 10 small tea plants from her Mississippi trip. She planted them in different types of soil to test what works best. She also has 15 tea seeds she’s trying to sprout.

In May or June, Hackman plans to visit the Charleston Tea Plantation in South Carolina, owned by tea giant Bigelow Tea Co. There she will learn about tea harvesting and processing. When the hot summer months are over, Hackman will get more seeds and plant them in pots to get them started. 

At UF, meanwhile, Richter says the next step is additional tests, among them probing the use of companion trees to provide partial shade for tea plants. Other tests will examine potential cover crops for tea plants. Orrock's groves in Polk County will be one of the sites of the upcoming research into cover crops. 

When the research team learns more, it will host more tea field days to share knowledge with growers. "We've had interest from citrus growers, blueberry growers and homeowners," Orrock says. "It's a grassroots campaign. The more people who are interested, the better." 

In Florida, tea won’t become an overnight crop sensation. It won’t even be a viable crop by 2020, according to Richter. “It’s going to be a gradual process of expansion," she says. "It’s going to take a few years. It really depends a lot on the growers and who is ready to take a risk.”

That risk may lay at the feet of people like Hackman, who is fired up about the future. “Challenge accepted by the state of Florida,” she says. “We’re going to produce some tea.”

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