Oregon farm turns to tea


0213 FOB Dispatches OregonTea 01The couple in charge of Minto Island Growers, a farm straddling Salem city limits, has become adept at growing and selling produce, and now they’re ready to focus more on a different part of the farm: a half-acre stand of tea plants.

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BY JORDAN NOVET

0213 FOB Dispatches OregonTea 01
Elizabeth Miller and Chris Jenkins run Minto Island Growers, a farm outside Salem. They plan to focus on their half acre of tea plants and move into a wider retail market with their tea.
// Photo by Sierra Breshears

The couple in charge of Minto Island Growers, a farm straddling Salem city limits, has become adept at growing and selling produce, and now they’re ready to focus more on a different part of the farm: a half-acre stand of tea plants.

Despite a horticulture expert’s view that tea is very difficult to grow in Oregon, they’re plotting ways to make a finished product on-site and get it out to a wider retail market.

“It’s a unique specialty crop in Oregon, and we think there’s a market opportunity for it,” says Elizabeth Miller, who runs the farm with her husband, Chris Jenkins.

Customers of the on-site farm stand like the teas — mostly green and oolong. Retailers have expressed interest too. A Eugene tea importer and tea bar, J-Tea International, introduced its own version of tea from Minto in November, for $4 a cup. A manager at a Salem health-food store says he might like to stock Minto tea. And Steve Smith, a former partner in Stash Tea Co. and the founder of the tea company Tazo, says he would be interested in carrying Oregon-grown tea at the Portland tasting room of his current company, Steven Smith Teamaker.

“We get a lot of culinary tourists in our shop, and I think that having Oregon-grown products would be highly appealing,” Smith says.

Smith himself was involved in tea’s introduction to Oregon. In 1989 he and the other Stash partners paid the expenses for an agriculture consultant, John Vendeland, to visit the site of a former tea plantation in South Carolina and come back with thousands of different kinds of Camellia sinensis seeds. “We were thinking of Oregon as a new origin [for tea],” Vendeland recalls. He started the plants in a greenhouse near Corvallis, to see which ones were suitable for growth outdoors. Half of the plants went outside the Stash office in Tigard; they all died. Vendeland brought the rest to Minto Island Growers, which a former business contact — Elizabeth Miller’s father, Rob — was running at the time under the name Mt. Jefferson Farms.

For years the tea crop was a research-and-development project, not a source of income, Rob Miller says. The idea was to figure out which plants had the best chance of thriving in the Willamette Valley. Five or six varieties stood out, Vendeland says.

 


 

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Miller harvests tea plants at Minto Island Growers, where she sees promise in Minto’s tea crop.
// Photo by Sierra Breshears

In 2008 Elizabeth Miller and Jenkins took over the tea crop and other parts of the farm. They hired Balazs Henger, a tea fanatic from Chehalis, Wash., to harvest and process their tea. Half was for his own consumption, and the other half has gone to Miller and her husband so they can maintain a supply to sell at the farm stand, alongside the blueberries and tomatoes. Henger has held tea classes at the Minto farm, too, bringing more buzz.

Later this year, Miller and Jenkins will devote two to three more acres of their land to new tea plants. In October the couple applied for a federal grant to help cover the costs of processing, packaging and marketing their tea.

Commercial tea crops also grow on multiple Hawaiian islands, in South Carolina and in Burlington, Wash. The tea plants at Burlington’s Sakuma Bros. Farms & Market, which were propagated from cuttings off the Minto crop, have given birth to teas at the Sakuma farm stand and blends at PCC Natural Markets stores in the Seattle area.

But in Oregon, “all the data suggests it’s going to be tougher than tar to do it well,” says Ross Penhallegon, a horticulture agent with the Oregon State University Extension Service. Still, a stand of 23-year-old tea plants shows the crop has potential here, he says. A consistent supply of Oregon-grown tea could benefit from an industry on the rise. Wholesale tea sales in the United States grew from $1.84 billion in 1990 to $8.2 billion in 2011, according to the Tea Association of the U.S.A.

It’s too early for Miller to call tea Oregon’s next agriculture superstar. But Minto’s tea crop does look promising to her.

“We’ve seen excitement from our customer base,” says Miller, “and we’re pretty confident that what we produce would be met with enthusiasm and would have a willing market.”