Or­ganic is the watchword for tea grow­ers

Western health sen­si­tiv­i­ties help trans­form in­dus­try in re­mote area

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - BUSINESS INSIGHT - By CHEN YINGQUN cheny­ingqun@chi­nadaily.com.cn

a wind­ing 40-minute drive along a zigzag coun­try road, you climb through a lane lined with os­man­thus bushes that give off a sweet scent and fi­nally reach the green- tea plan­ta­tion of Jin Lin­sheng, glis­ten­ing with morn­ing dew and em­broi­dered with thou­sands of spi­der webs.

“This is no or­di­nary green tea; it’s or­ganic, with no pes­ti­cides or chem­i­cals,” Jin says.

“See the spi­der webs? The more there are, the bet­ter the plan­ta­tion’s mi­cro-ecol­ogy, the bet­ter the tea leaves will be.”

Just as Western brands have con­quered Chi­nese palates with cof­fee, Chi­nese or­ganic tea grow­ers like Jin in Wuyuan county, Jiangxi prov­ince, are now look­ing to cash in on Western tastes and health sen­si­tiv­i­ties.

Wuyuan, which is widely re­garded as hav­ing some of the most beau­ti­ful coun­try­side in China, plans to ex­pand plant­ing of or­ganic green tea not only be­cause of grow­ing or­ders from over­seas, but also be­cause of aware­ness of food safety at home.

Qiu Jinyin, head of the Wuyuan Tea Bureau, says Wuyuan or­ganic tea plant­ing has been steady and has been un­able to meet grow­ing de­mand, with some com­pa­nies still work­ing on or­ders from last spring.

This year the county de­cided to grad­u­ally turn all its tea grow­ing into or­ganic op­er­a­tions and in­crease the grow­ing area from its present 11,300 hectares to 13,000 hectares within eight years. Qiu says he ex­pects the plan­ta­tions will then pro­duce 20,000 tons of or­ganic green tea a year with a turnover of 10 bil­lion yuan ($1.65 bil­lion).

“We be­lieve mak­ing or­ganic green tea is the way for­ward for Wuyuan, be­cause peo­ple’s con­cerns about their health can only grow, and green con­sump­tion will con­tinue to rise,” Qiu says.

Euro­pean mar­ket re­search com­pany Euromon­i­tor In­ter­na­tional says sales of or­ganic green tea have risen greatly in the con­ti­nent in re­cent years.

Last year the mar­ket in Europe was worth $31.7 mil­lion, it says. Ger­many ranked the high­est at $13.2 mil­lion, about 21 per­cent higher than four years ear­lier, fol­lowed by France at $5.3 mil­lion and Bri­tain at $3.4 mil­lion, both of whose sales were about a third higher than they had been four years ear­lier.

Diana Cow­land, a health and well­ness an­a­lyst with Euromon­i­tor In­ter­na­tional, says more peo­ple in Europe are drink­ing green tea, and the de­mand for or­ganic prod­ucts gen­er­ally is high be­cause peo­ple look fa­vor­ably on the re­duced use or non-use of her­bi­cides and pes­ti­cides. They like the fact that the tea is ap­proved by rec­og­nized bod­ies.

Wuyuan is lo­cated at a lat­i­tude fa­vor­able to good soil and rain con­sid­ered ideal for grow­ing green tea. Many plan­ta­tions can be found in the sur­round­ing moun­tains, of­ten shrouded in mist. Be­cause of its re­mote­ness, his­tor­i­cal lack of trans­port and tea grow­ers’ tra­di­tional ways of plant­ing, the leaves are very clean.

The China Tea Mar­ket­ing As­so­ci­a­tion says that last year Wuyuan county’s green tea plan­ta­tions cov­ered about 11,300 hectares, pro­duc­ing 10,100 tons of tea val­ued at 1.36 bil­lion yuan. Of that, 4,100 tons were or­ganic, and about 2,400 were ex­ported to Europe, with a value of $15 mil­lion.

“Fig­ures are hard to come by, but the Wuyuan or­ganic green tea mar­ket un­doubt­edly ac­counts for more than half of the EU mar­ket,” says Yao Jingbo, deputy gen­eral-sec­re­tary of the as­so­ci­a­tion.

Tea used to be a pil­lar in­dus­try for Wuyuan and has a long his­tory there. Dur­ing the Ming and Qing dy­nas­ties ( 13681911), about 2,500 kilo­grams of Wuyuan green tea is said to have been served to royal fam­i­lies ev­ery year. Some was ex­ported to Bri­tain. Tea dances, songs and opera in the area were well-known through­out China, says Yu Xinzu, deputy gen­eral-sec­re­tary of Wuyuan Tea As­so­ci­a­tion.

How­ever, af­ter the found­ing of New China in 1949, the planned econ­omy sys­tem meant Wuyuan’s green tea could not be sold do­mes­ti­cally, most of it go­ing to Europe and Africa, but only through an ex­ter­nal seller and un­der the name China Green Tea.

“We weren’t al­lowed to sell the tea our­selves,” Qiu says. “Even visi­tors to Wuyuan who wanted to take tea home as gifts were only al­lowed to take 1 kilo­gram,” Qiu says.

It was an easy time for Wuyuan be­cause tea grow­ers did not have to worry about mar­ket­ing. How­ever, af­ter the re­form and open­ing-up be­gan, grow­ers did not know how to deal with the open mar­ket, says Hong Peng, pres­i­dent of Jiangxi Wuyuan Dazhang­shan Or­ganic Food Co Ltd.

Hong says that lack of a brand weak­ened Wuyuan green tea’s com­pet­i­tive­ness as it went up against do­mes­tic big names in­clud­ing Longjing in Hangzhou, Zhejiang prov­ince, and Tieguanyin in Anxi, Fujian prov­ince. Over­seas, Wuyuan tea was vir­tu­ally un­known.

“For some time we blindly fol­lowed what other places were do­ing,” Hong says. “We sold beauty- slim­ming tea, health-pre­serv­ing tea, what­ever was pop­u­lar in the mar­ket.”

Changes came in the early 1990s when China adopted the con­cept of green food and stan­dard­ized trade­marks and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion ac­cord­ingly. In 1996, 53 hectares of tea-grow­ing ar­eas in Wuyuan Dazhang­shan were given the green food trade­mark, the first of its kind in China’s tea in­dus­try.

In 1997, Wuyuan green tea ap­peared at a trade fair in Frank­furt, and even­tu­ally the com­pany sought cer­ti­fi­ca­tion for its prod­ucts in the Euro­pean Union, which was granted. In the same year Hong’s com­pany re­ceived an or­der for 200 kilo­grams of or­ganic green tea from Ger­many; the fol­low­ing year the or­der was for 600,000 kg. Other tea com­pa­nies in the county then grad­u­ally built con­nec­tions with over­seas mar­kets. Hong says his or­ganic tea plants cover 600 hectares, of which he ex­ports about 1,000 tons a year, about 80 per­cent to Europe, and the rest to the US.

Hong, who grad­u­ated from Wuyuan Tea School, says that in the early days Wuyuan grow­ers were so ig­no­rant of the tea in­dus­try out­side China that they had no idea of how much to charge.

Yu Guangzhong, pres­i­dent of Wuyuan Xi­tou Or­ganic Tea Co, Ltd, says that with China’s very strong tea cul­ture, tea is ideal for ex­pen­sive gifts that sym­bol­ize sta­tus, mean­ing there are many peo­ple will­ing to spend thou­sands of dol­lars on a kilo­gram of tea.

Prices for tea leaves, de­pend­ing on mat­ters such as whether it con­sists of one bud or two, or what time of year it is picked, dif­fer widely. How­ever, cut tea is con­sid­ered val­ue­less in China, Yu says.

“At first, many peo­ple thought Western­ers were richer, so they sold them the high­est-qual­ity tea, which turned out to be a mis­take.

“Most Western­ers use tea bags hold­ing cut tea as long as they are deemed healthy. So the tea usu­ally costs dozens of yuan a kg. They also like to mix tea with things like fruit and gin­ger.”

Yu has 133 hectares of or­ganic tea bushes. Their ex­port value is put at about $3.2 mil­lion. About 80 per­cent of his prod­ucts go to the EU and the US, and the rest to Aus­tralia and South­east Asia.

The Euro­pean mar­ket has been steady in re­cent years, but or­ders from the US have been ris­ing about 20 per­cent a year, Yu says. But suc­cess­fully switch­ing to or­ganic grow­ing and mar­ket­ing is not easy.

For one thing, many coun­tries re­quire producers to ob­tain spe­cial cer­ti­fi­ca­tion to mar­ket food as or­ganic within their bor­ders, so it needs to be pro­duced in a way that com­plies with or­ganic stan­dards set by na­tional and in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions. “So to sell or­ganic tea, the gar­den, the pro­cess­ing and the fi­nal prod­ucts all need to meet or­ganic stan­dards and get cer­ti­fi­ca­tion from the tar­get mar­ket,” Yu says.

How­ever, for Wuyuan land that is un­pol­luted and suit­able for grow­ing or­ganic green tea, an es­sen­tial in­gre­di­ent in re­ceiv­ing such cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, is lim­ited. While more farm­ers are adopt­ing mod­ern agri­cul­tural meth­ods, chem­i­cal fer­til­iz­ers have been used in some ar­eas, putting the air and soil in sur­round­ing ar­eas at risk.

The Wuyuan gov­ern­ment is now of­fer­ing 3 mil­lion yuan a year in sub­si­dies to en­cour­age farm­ers to stop us­ing fer­til­izer and switch plan­ta­tions to or­ganic grow­ing, but mak­ing that tran­si­tion takes at least three years.

Huang Tong, pres­i­dent of Wuyuan Z. G. S. Tea In­dus­tries Co Ltd, says he has been forced to raise pay 15 per­cent a year to keep work­ers. Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion costs, in the tens of thou­sands of yuan a year, are also a heavy bur­den for many tea farm­ers and com­pa­nies.

Wuyuan has more than 500 tea com­pa­nies, and dozens are plant­ing tea us­ing or­ganic meth­ods, but only about 10 com­pa­nies re­ceive or­ganic cer­ti­fi­ca­tion in a year.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Tea farm­ers pick tea leaves in Wuyuan, Jiangxi prov­ince. More than half of the Euro­pean mar­ket has been ac­counted for by Wuyuan or­ganic green tea over the past decade.

Jin Lin­sheng, pres­i­dent of Wuyuan Lin­sheng In­dus­tries Ltd.

Qiu Jinyin, head of the Wuyuan Tea Bureau.

Huang Tong, pres­i­dent of Wuyuan Z. G. S. Tea In­dus­tries Co Ltd.

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