Tea is still widely being researched in the Southeast, and growers may want to keep their eye on tea as a potential specialty crop. The market for tea spreads beyond just consumption. Tea can be used in beauty products, pharmaceuticals and more, making it an attractive crop to producers. While the southeastern climate can be tough on some crops, researchers say it is the perfect climate for tea.
Brantlee Spakes Richter, a senior lecturer in the plant pathology department at the University of Florida, has been researching tea for over a year, and she says it seems to be going well. She says at the one-year mark, only one of eight cultivars of tea failed.
Richter, who is working closely with researchers in Mississippi, says that every cultivar that came from Mississippi did great in the field.
The only negative issue Richter seems to have faced is a bit of crop loss from the drought between April and June earlier this year. However, she says that the cultivars that made it through the drought have bounced back well.
While Richter is continuing to examine the economic value of tea in the United States, a big issue now seems to be labor. This has been an issue for many growers who produce labor-intensive crops. Tea can be extremely labor intensive if the grower wants the product to be high quality, which is why it is traditionally produced in areas where labor is cheap.
However, mechanical harvesting is on the rise in the United States and around the world. Mechanized harvesting obviously saves on labor costs, but it does come with some negatives. For example, tea that is mechanically harvested usually creates a lower-quality product, closing some markets for the crop. Despite the downfalls of mechanical harvesting, Richter believes most U.S. growers will choose to go that route for harvest.
As of right now, the only state in the United States that has an Extension-supported tea industry is Hawaii, and most of those growers have chosen the hand-picking route for harvest in order to get the higher-quality product.
Richter believes tea has great potential to be a viable specialty crop in the United States, and especially in the Southeast. She plans to continue working with the researchers in Mississippi to create a viable tea production system for southeastern growers.
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