Recent declines in small family-farms that grow and harvest tea in Taiwan?
There has been a decline of farms over the past 10 to 20 years. Most currently in the last 2-3 years new methods mechanized production have further compromised the quality of specialty teas.
“Big Tea" moving in
A factor that has had a large impact is the development of large, high elevation farms by both private farmers and corporations. The family run farms that were successful have joined the competition and invested their profits in expansion to larger scale production separate from their original home based cottage industry. Not only have large plots of high mountain real estate been developed into tea farms, but large modern processing facilities (tea factories) have been constructed that have changed production methods significantly, decreasing quality and product value. The environmental impact of this development is a point of controversy.
Environmental and industry impact of this trend
High elevation tea farms are, for the most part, remote plots of mountainous terrain that are cleared, landscaped and developed for agricultural purposes only. This is where the controversy lies. Only a small percentage of farmers live on their high mountain tea farms. So the development of this pristine environment is strictly based on an economic prospect. This development of high mountain real estate is the result of the high demand for quality tea that occurred during Taiwan’s initial economic boom in the 1980’s and was taken ad- vantage of by corporations such as Ten Ren Tea to meet this demand and market this new trend of “green” High Mountain Oolong.
This has caused the invention of a new type of tea through the commercial promotion and popularization of High Mountain Oolong Tea. A greener, less oxidized (fermented) type of Oolong that requires less processing skill, care, and labor to produce. The big-dollar marketing of this tea has been successful in creating a popular demand and has diminished the value of traditional Oolong production by small, family-run farms.
How these trends effect tea quality
Along with the environmental impact, the biggest detrimental result of large factory construction and large scale tea production is the decrease of quality control in production methods. What used to be hands-on processing in small amounts by family members who learned the art of tea making as a family tradition in their home has become mechanized and standardized in large factories with hired labor.
In addition to the original traditional homestead farms, Eco-Cha is committed to finding, supporting, and bringing awareness to tea producers within this context of High Mountain Oolong production that are within a relatively acceptable range of sustainable production methods determined by their volume, farming practices and quality control in processing tea leaves.
Machines & labour
The mechanized replacement of hands-on production has affected quality and character of High Mountain Oolong even further in the last 2-3 years with the introduction of a new ma- chine that significantly reduces labor. This machine was invented in Vietnam, where the skilled labor force for rolling the tea leaves during the drying process did not exist. Taiwanese tea farmers and tea companies who ventured abroad to develop farms needed to find a solution to this dilemma. Hence the invention of a hydraulic compactor machine that results in a significantly different quality of production. This is combined with the diminish- ing labor force that is willing to do this difficult job - which parallels the scarcity of tea pick- ers.!!Another factor in recent years that has caused a decline in small scale tea production is the diminishing labor resources - namely, tea pickers. Part of the scarcity of tea pickers is the result of large farms and factories usurping the labor force for their own purposes which was previously more available for hire to smaller farms. There is also a more general shift in the rural demographics where the population of tea pickers is aging and not being replaced by the new generation which has gravitated toward more urban, modern lifestyles and living standards.