A good cup of tea can connect people with people and people with nature.
Jian Jiawen lets his tea trees grow “wild.” The tea brewed from their leaves is rich with the true flavor of the land.
After passing Lake Fenqi on Provincial Highway 18, we drive along winding mountain roads. Amid Alishan’s atmosphere of quiet seclusion, we have the feeling that the bolt-upright, verdant Chinese firs are gradually closing in around us. But when we arrive at Taihe Village, at an altitude of 1445 meters, suddenly the broad panorama of a large tea plantation opens before our eyes.
At a “wild foods” teahouse in a “forest tea garden” deep in the mountains—a teahouse owned by tea farmer Jian Jiawen that is not open to the public but only receives friends—my understanding of tea plantations is totally overturned. The tea brewed from the leaves of tea plants left to grow free in nature is fragrant and has a rich flavor, and it is very striking that one can still taste the sweetness of the tea even on the seventh or eighth steeping.
Jian Jiawen’s tea plants, including Taiwan mountain tea (Camellia formosensis) and oolong tea cultivars of Camellia sinensis, are hidden amidst a forest of pigeonwood (Trema orientalis), stout camphor (Cinnamomum kanehirae), and Formosan michelia (Michelia compressa) trees. Wild Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia diversifolia) and Alishan chrysanthemums (Dendranthema arisanense) blossom riotously, and the mountain tea trees, their trunks covered with lichen, grow six to 13 meters high, so the leaves can only be picked by climbing up scaffolding set up alongside the trees. The mutual interaction between these tea trees and the natural forest gives their leaves a unique local fragrance.
This teahouse, located in the middle of a tea plantation, attracts aficionados to come and sample the beverage.
Jian does not prune his tea trees, nor apply fertilizer, nor use pesticides. After ten years of using this natural method of farming, the land has recovered so much that in the tea garden one can see Moltrecht’s green tree frog (Rhacophorus moltrechti), which is highly sensitive to habitat degradation, and predatory spiders that are high up in the food chain, and one can hear the song of birds such as Steere’s liocichla and the white-eared sibia.
“A diversity of bird, insect, and plant species is the best authentication of an eco-friendly tea plantation,” says tea master Tsai Yi-tze, who is an advocate for eco-friendly tea farming.
Letting the land speak for itself
For tea farmers Jian Jiawen and Ye Renshou, who have adopted natural farming methods, everything started back in 2009 when Typhoon Morakot devastated the Alishan area. Torrential rains brought a year’s worth of normal precipitation in the space of five days, creating debris flows, rockfalls and landslides.
Because he avoids using chemical weedkillers, tea farmer Ye Renshou must weed by hand, taking special care to clear away rapidly spreading vines.
The enormous destruction caused by the typhoon caused some people to rethink man’s relationship with the land and the soil. Ignoring the opposition of his family, Jian Jiawen decided to grow his tea using “wild” methods.
After four or five years, his tea plantation had become a complete ecosystem, with many insect-eating predators. Through these years of “wild” growing, the tea plants developed self-defense mechanisms, and the tea acquired a flavor that reflected its terroir. This really was a case of “using the ways of nature to meet the needs of man.” Jian Jiawen says: “Nature is truly miraculous!”
For Ye Renshou, the initial motivation for adopting natural farming methods also came from Typhoon Morakot. Ye saw friends and family killed before his very eyes, and his tea plantation of more than 30 years was carried 200 meters downhill by a debris flow. But the tea trees that now stood untended on someone else’s land still flourished. This opened Ye’s eyes, and he began to try out “wild” growing methods on his own land. Since starting his experiment on 2000 square meters of land, he has since expanded his production of eco-friendly tea fivefold, to one hectare.
Tea masters use their experience to judge the proper amount of time for withering of the leaves, as just the right degree of dryness can improve the tea’s flavor.
However, his tea leaves were chewed on by insects and were ugly in appearance, and the ground beneath his tea trees was full of weeds. In the eyes of the people of Taihe Village, 90% of whom are tea farmers, this was simply incredible. In the face of comments like “he’s a useless person” and “he’s lost all ambition,” Ye could only keep his spirits up by telling himself: “I am normal.”
But through practicing respect for nature through “wild” and natural farming methods, both Jian and Ye came to appreciate the value of peaceful coexistence with nature. They discovered that the power of nature is not only destructive, but can also be life-giving and generous.
Take for example Ye’s winter tea crop in 2018. Many farmers who used conventional methods on their plantations saw yields fall as a result of the extremely cold weather. But in Ye’s eco-friendly tea plantation, production actually increased! Thanks to years of building soil fertility, the tea trees had grown more resistant to the cold weather. Ye says that eco-friendly tea plantations are better able to resist the impact of changes in local microclimates.
Taiwanese tea expert Tsai Yi-tze not only teaches the aesthetics of the tea ceremony, he has also made it his mission to train people in applying conservation practices to mountain tea plantations.
Side by side with farmers
“Drinking tea is drinking the environment.” So says Tsai Yi-tze, a tea master who has been working side by side with tea farmers for over 20 years.
In 1996 Tsai happened to be looking for tea to buy in the Bishi area of Nantou County’s Xinyi Township when Typhoon Herb caused the Chenyoulan River to suddenly overflow its banks, and in an instant a debris flow washed away the hut he was standing next to. Fleeing for his life, he was trapped in the mountains, with no outside communication, for more than ten days.
This profound life experience taught Tsai the importance of soil and water conservation, and awoke him to the urgent need to practice it in mountain tea plantations.
Pan-roasting tea, and rolling the leaves by hand between roasts, changes the fragrance and shape of the tealeaves, giving the tea a greater depth of flavor.
“This conservation effort began with consumer participation and working side by side with tea farmers,” says Tsai, who went through many years of trial and error to arrive at a practical approach.
He promoted his ideas to Taiwanese tea growers one patch of land at a time, from Pinglin to Shiding in New Taipei City; from Mingjian to Sun Moon Lake in Nantou; and from Alishan in Chiayi to Gaotai in Taitung. “It was all about working with them and reminding this generation of tea farmers to revive their memories of the tea growing methods of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers, while at the same time restoring the soil to its natural state by not using chemical fertilizers or pesticides.” By adopting natural farming methods, with experience it would be possible to find a balance between production and the environment.
Organic tea plantations
The tea farmers who abandoned conventional farming methods were all people with the courage to follow their own convictions, and therefore did not fear to go against the grain. Tea farmer Yu Sanhe, head of the seventh tea production and marketing group in Pinglin, and Huang Bojun, founder of Taiwan BlueMagpie Tea, both had the same courage and enthusiasm.
Tea farmer Yu Sanhe, who practices natural farming methods, says he doesn’t “grow” tea, but merely maintains the environment.
“I don’t grow tea, I just maintain the environment.” Yu Sanhe, who started to apply natural farming methods in 2010, brings out some recently harvested and processed winter tea and says, eyes shining, “Since I shifted over to organic farming, not only have I protected the environment, I have been able to get a rich harvest of precious winter tea.”
Yu explains that when he first went over to eco-friendly tea growing, besides a drop in production, his biggest headache was “infections from neighboring plantations.” “Four or five years ago a neighboring farmer said unthinkingly that the only way he could get the leaves on his tea bushes to grow was to spray pesticides three times per growing season. I realized that he was using so much pesticide that the insects were all driven into my plantation, so it’s no wonder that my tea was all eaten up.” To address this problem, Ye did not harvest his tea in August, but deliberately waited until after his neighbors sprayed their pesticides in September, so that his tea leaves would be old and therefore unpalatable to the insects driven over into his plantation. Then he waited again for new buds to form in October, which was precisely the time to harvest winter tea.
The difficult days that Yu went through, when reduced production caused him to operate at a loss, so that he could only get by with the help of loans from the farmers’ association, have ended in sweetness. He is understated and persevering, just like the tea he makes—especially his white tea and yellow tea, in which the light infusion has a powerful sweet aftertaste.
In the more than 1000 hectares of tea plantations located high up in the catchment of the Feitsui Reservoir, spread across Pinglin and Shiding Districts, more than 90% of growers still use conventional methods, and their long-term overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has led to acidification of the land and to concerns about accelerating eutrophication of the reservoir. Besides Yu Sanhe, there are some 30 tea farmers in Pinglin’s organic-only seventh and eighth production and marketing groups who are working hard to restore eco-friendly tea cultivation, and so to moderate the damage being done to the Feitsui Reservoir by conventional farming methods.
Organic tea farms in Pinglin do not use chemical weedkiller, so you can see glossy green grass growing below the tea trees. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
There is also Huang Bojun, founder of Taiwan BlueMagpie Tea, who since 2013 has used the concept of “river basin recovery” to convince 14 tea farmers to join the ranks of those who do not use pesticides or chemical fertilizers.
Huang uses “eco-friendly” as a branding tool, and promotes marketing techniques like corporate sponsorship and travel to tea growing areas, working through companies with a sense of corporate social responsibility and through consumer participation to together do whatever they can on behalf of environmentally friendly tea drinking.
Drinking tea is a reconstruction of natural local conditions, and also a kind of life aesthetic and attitude. When we practice conservation and environmentally friendly cultivation techniques in mountain tea plantations, nature rewards us with a truly revitalizing cup of tea.