Reading the Tea Leaves of Alternative Crops

Fruit growers, especially young fruit growers, always seem to be on the lookout for something new. Whether it’s a new way to grow one of their current crops, or trying an entirely new crop, they are wide open to opportunities.

So for this month’s GenNext Growers feature on alternative crops, I called university researchers across the country to learn of what relatively untried crops might be of interest to the next generation of fruit growers.

Because California produces about half the nation’s fruit, I felt obligated to call someone with the University of California, even though I didn’t expect to learn anything I hadn’t already heard a million times. What could be new in a state in which more than 380 crops are already grown? Well, how about one of the oldest crops around: tea?

Before you scoff at the notion of producing such a crop in near-desertlike conditions, when it has been traditionally grown in areas that have monsoons — think India — you should listen to Jeff Dahlberg. He’s the director of the prestigious University of California (UC) Kearney Agricultural Research & Extension Center, which is located in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley.

Dahlberg has one word for the nonbelievers: blueberries. About 20 years ago, a farm advisor with the UC Small Farm Program, Manuel Jimenez, suggested the valley could produce blueberries.

“Everyone laughed at him,” Dahlberg says.

Blueberries were known for growing wild in cold, wet areas, basically the opposite of the San Joaquin Valley. But Jimenez, who’s now retired, kept at it, and new varieties were developed that thrived in the Golden State. No one’s laughing now, least of all growers in places like Michigan that find it tough to compete. (I use Michigan as an example because Michigan State University’s Mark Longstroth says per-acre blueberry yields there now are half those of California’s.)

Now, perhaps it’s tea time.

The crop is actually not new to California. Nearly 60 years ago, Thomas J. Lipton Inc. funded a tea study at the Kearney Center. Dahlberg says there was a lot of political unrest in the world’s major tea production areas, and Lipton wanted to be sure it had a reliable source. The project fizzled when then President Richard Nixon helped open China to trade, and a cheap source of tea was established.

Before the Kearney tea program was scrapped all those years ago, some of the best clones were saved and planted as landscaping. Dahlberg has a few of the plants growing right outside his office window. He has high hopes for the crop, and not just because he personally prefers a cup of tea to coffee.

High-end loose-leaf teas can sell for $20 an ounce or more. Many believe it has enviable medicinal properties. In fact, UC Davis recently launched a Global Tea Initiative.

As mentioned above, tea isn’t normally grown in arid conditions with lots of sun. But Dahlberg says that’s not insurmountable. For example, tea can be grown in the shade of the many arrays of solar panels popping up all over the state.

Dahlberg doesn’t expect California to become a huge producer any time soon. But it could be an interesting adventure for some small farmers.

Anyone who scoffs at the notion would be wise to recall the people who laughed at Jimenez’s idea to grow blueberries in the Golden State 20 years ago.

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