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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, February 8, 2003

Hope rides on growing state's cup of tea

By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawai'i's world-famous coffee industry got its start with a few seedlings planted in the early 1800s. Some scientists and farmers hope to duplicate that success with tea.

Francis Zee, a horticulturalist, is testing the viability of tea varieties at three sites on the Big Island. Zee says the tea he is growing in Volcano and Waimea tastes better than that grown at this plot in Pana'ewa.

Kevin Dayton • The Honolulu Advertiser

Francis Zee, a horticulturist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is testing the viability of tea varieties at three sites on the Big Island. Like coffee, which generates $20 million in sales a year for Hawai'i farmers, tea thrives in the island's fertile soil and tropical weather, Zee said.

He and others are studying different growing and processing techniques, working to lay the groundwork for an industry that is four to five years away at best. Like many new crops, tea holds the promise of helping the state diversify away from pineapple and sugar cane, markets that have eroded in recent years.

"I think we've proved we can grow it. That's not a problem," said Dwight Sato, an extension agent with the University of Hawai'i College of Tropical Agriculture in Hilo. "Now we want to move ahead and see if we can turn this into an industry. We want to make the mistakes before we transfer it to farmers."

While overall farm sales fell 1 percent last year, sales of diversified crops rose 1 percent, to a record $357 million in 2001, according to the Hawai'i Agricultural Statistics Service.

Like coffee producers, tea growers will need to overcome the relatively high costs of farming in Hawai'i by targeting the gourmet market, Zee said. Hawai'i's reputation as a clean, environmentally conscious community could help, he said.

Tea also poses little concern about ill effects, as surfaced with the kava, or 'awa. Another promising crop, kava ran into trouble when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned that herbal supplements made with the root might be linked to serious liver injury.

"The Chinese have been drinking tea for 2,000 years, and look at their population," Zee said. "So it's healthy. This is something that won't come back and bite you."

Among other benefits, tea contains the antioxidant polyphenol, a compound that might help prevent cancer.

"We've been trying to spur demand by associating tea with a great many health benefits," said Joseph Simrany, president of the Tea Council of the USA, a tea industry trade group in New York. "If we succeed in doing this, then we'll need all the tea we can get."

Hawai'i isn't the only state trying to develop a tea industry. Similar efforts are under way in Oregon and South Carolina, Simrany said.

Retail tea sales total about $5 billion a year in the United States, with more than 99 percent of that imported, Simrany said. Tapping that market will be a challenge, he said, because of a worldwide oversupply and competition from large low-wage producers such as China, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

U.S. tea growers also need to convince wholesalers to distribute tea grown at small farms. The key will be to increase consumer awareness about the benefits of drinking tea, Simrany said.

Zee, who has been growing tea on the Big Island for about three years, is testing about a dozen varieties, including some from Japan and Taiwan. Depending on how they're processed, the leaves can be used to make green, black or oolong tea.

Just what yields Hawai'i growers can expect is still being studied, but an acre generally produces about 400 to 500 pounds of dry tea leaves. Because of Hawai'i's mild weather, the trees could be harvested four to six times a year, Zee said.

At retail, the average black tea sells for about $2 for 100 tea bags, while specialized green and oolong teas can garner $30 and up per pound, which is 150 to 200 servings.

The amount charged for tea depends on its quality and how well it is marketed, said Byron Goo, president of the Tea Chest in Iwilei. The key is for a Hawai'i-branded tea to have a unique flavor. It's not unusual for high-quality tea to fetch $50 at wholesale and double that or more at retail, Goo said.

"I've seen my business at that price really grow over the last two years," he said. "(The tea is) going to have to have a distinct characteristic. Whether it's floral or fruity, it has to be distinct."

For growers, getting $50 a pound would be a vast improvement over products such as guava, which can sell for as little as 6 cents a pound, Zee said.

"That's the difference between commodity and niche marketing," he said. "We need to bring the farmers' income up so they can make a living."

Sean Hao at shao@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8093.