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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, April 25, 2005

Hawai'i tea growers are 'learning as we go'

By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaiian coffee is world renowned. Locally made fruit juices and even Hawaiian deep-sea drinking water are gaining in popularity. So how far behind can Hawaiian tea be?

Hawaii Tea Society president Eva Lee displays tea cuttings that she will prepare for rooting.

Photo courtesy of Eva Lee

The seeds for Hawai'i's tea industry were planted about five years ago with government-initiated research into its viability, and now it's heading to the private sector where a smattering of

Big Island growers are experimenting with tea crops ranging from about 5,000 square feet to a quarter acre.

Meaningful commercial production is still three years away and uncertainty about the costs and competitiveness of a Hawai'i cup of tea remain, said Eva Lee, president of the 1-year-old Hawaii Tea Society.

"We're taking it one step at a time — learning as we go," said Lee, who's planting a quarter acre of Camellia sinensis tea in Volcano Village. "It's an exciting time because more and more people are starting to find out about it."

The Hawaii Tea Society has about 40 members, many of whom have started backyard tea farms.

"We don't see it as being a huge business, just a small niche market," Lee said.

Evidence of how even a niche market can be profitable for Hawai'i's farmers is found around Kona, where a few seedlings planted in the early 1800s have turned into a robust coffee industry. Like coffee, which generates $20 million in annual farm sales, tea thrives in the island's fertile soil and tropical weather.

And similar to coffee, Hawai'i farmers will likely focus on upscale specialty teas, which are driving growth for the venerable drink. Annual tea sales in the United States are projected to double to $10 billion by 2010, according to the Sage Group's U.S. Tea Report. Most of the increase will occur in the area of specialty teas such as green and black teas.

Specialty teas "are a smaller portion of the (tea) market, but it's the fastest growing and the only part that is growing," said Brian Keating, president for Sage Group, which is based in Seattle.

Tea pickers on the Big Island gather their product. Tea could help Hawai'i diversify amid eroding pineapple and sugar-cane markets.

USDA photo

Small estate farms focusing on tea also could be an attraction for tourists, he said.

Industry efforts were boosted last week when the state-financed Hawaii Agribusiness Development Corp. agreed to provide the University of Hawai'i College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources $100,000, which will be used to finish a pilot tea processing lab, develop quality-control standards and grow root cuttings to meet increasing demand for tea research and production.

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. However, to compete with low-wage producers such as China and India, local growers likely will need to target a gourmet market.

"Tea will fit in well with agriculture in Hawai'i for the small backyard farmer and for ag tourism," said Dwight Sato, an extension agent with the University of Hawai'i College of Tropical Agriculture in Hilo. "The main thing is we establish a new industry, and there's more things to grow in Hawai'i."

Much of the research on growing tea in Hawai'i has been conducted over the past five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and UH on three half-acre sites varying in elevation from 600 feet to 4,000 feet above sea level. From there, researchers developed techniques to hand process white, black and green teas, and tests of mechanical processing and harvesting methods are under way.

Increasingly, efforts are shifting to spreading knowledge gained via workshops and demonstrations, Sato said.

Overall, it's estimated that only about five acres or so of tea plants are being farmed privately statewide. Farmers are being urged to use caution by starting with small plots of land until more is known about production costs and the potential markets for Hawai'i-grown and processed tea.

"We can't come up with definite numbers and say 'If you go into this you'll make this much money,' " Sato said. "But we can say 'Try this out on a small commercial scale.' "

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.

So far researchers believe Hawai'i's teas are high quality, but acknowledge their expertise is limited. To address that problem some of the $100,000 received by the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources will pay for training on how to evaluate tea via classes and consultations with tea experts.

"The product looks pretty good, to us it tastes OK, but we don't really know," said Stewart Nakamoto, an extension economist at the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. "We need to do the sensory evaluation. We need to figure out what the characteristics are and so forth."

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