Having arrived late into Menglian we rise early the next day to head to the tea cooperative run by Mr Xu. I had last visited here in 2017 and fallen in love with the mission of the team here and of course the quality and profile of the tea
The cooperative was founded in 2005 when, in response to a call from the government, Mr Xu and a number of his trusted colleagues from Bao Shan City : Teng Chong, came to this area to start a tea cooperative. Tea was not new to Mr Xu he is a 5th generation tea farmer with 3 generations being highly skilled in black tea making. Mr Yang who we were to meet later was with mr Xu for 5 years before they came here so theirs is a long and trusted partnership,
The land in this area had historically been farmland, before that opium was grown here [it is very close to the border with Cambodia and on our trip we were stopped and checked several times] Life was hard for the communities here and one of the founding principles of the tea farm was and still is to alleviate poverty and improve living conditions. The other was to prioritise environmental protection and as we will hear from Mr Xu the road to organic farming has been far longer and more complicated than he ever imagined.
The cooperative consists of 7 village and 26 farmer organisations. There are 1360 farmer families and 4600 people in total reliant on the success of the cooperative. The Dian hong that we had come here to buy comes from one village garden Dong Shan which is fully converted and organic certified. The two main cultivars planted here are Chang Ye Bai Hao 'long leaves white buds' - mainly used for black tea and Yun Kang Shi Hao which has smaller leaf and bud and is used for both puer and black tea. Looking around the office we saw this map which shows the tea producing areas. The one on the top left is the organic area and village where the tea we buy comes from. This was the area we were to spend the day in.
We started by drinking tea and discussed the lack of rain this year. No rain had come in 6 months and the land was dry and production down. The structure of the cooperative means that even though the harvest is low the farmers will still get the subsidies. This is all part of the social responsibility construct of the company explained Mr Wang, our guide for the morning : 'we work to a number of key principles. First : we pay per kilo on the day. Secondly we reward farmers who strictly adhere to our environmental policies : families in the mountains are grouped together - around 20 in each tea farming community. Organic tea warrants a 2RMB bonus per kilo - this will only be realised if the tea tests well at the end of each month. Farmers therefore have a duty to each other. If they fail in their duty to keep the tea clean then the whole group will forfeit the bonus : for a family this can equate to 1264 rmb a year. In addition the families get 1% commission on total sales each year. It's all about joining up the dots - clients want quality, quality needs organic, organic means taking care of the land. If the land is not cared for the tea won't sell and no bonuses will be available. We are all in it together'
The final piece in the jigsaw which is yet to become a reality is allowing farmers to become investors. Then they are truly partners. Time will tell if this is something that farmers want to take up.
So what effect has all of this had? We looked at some charts on the wall with two bars, one green and one purple which showed the average household income over the last years. The green bar represented income from tea and the purple the entire income - the difference between the two was money created from other initiatives such as vegetables, poultry farming etc all of which he are supported by the cooperative and government. Both bars have steadily risen over the last ten years - more on this later when we travel out to meet some of the people working and farming here - mainly from the Lahu ethnic group but also from the Wa.
We finished our tea and headed out to the garden. Here we would see some of the organic principles in place : plants other than tea placed amoung the bushes to act as a fertiliser (when their leaves drop they naturally fertilise the soil), an ecosystem of bugs (which have readily increased since organic conversion started in 2008) and although we did not see it they shared that they use goat and cow manure from the local farmers on the land. There are two plucking seasons here : spring tea starts at the end February and autumn tea is around September to October. The puer is piled each year in November (twice a year if there is a big order) and fermentation lasts 50 days. Other than that preliminary processing takes place in factories near to the 6 main plucking areas - any finishing or sorting is further down the hill at the main HQ. We picked fresh fruit amoungst the tea bushes and feasted on it as we walked down the hill.
Time for lunch. We headed to a local village where we feasted on fresh vegetables, soup and local fruits that the team headed out to pick including the bright pink wax apples you see below.
Leaving our idyllic lunch spot we hopped back in the car to travel to one of the preliminary factories at the Yong Shan garden - here we met Mr Yang who has worked with Mr Xu for over 20 years. It is Mr Yang that oversees the production of our Dian Hong. First we enjoyed some tea at a simple table outside the area used for collecting and sorting the tea from the nearby factory. These moments are always special - tea prepared simply and honestly as close to the area that is is grown as you can get - and usually processed just a few days previously. For a tea merchant : heaven.
As we walked over to the factory Mr Yang explained the manufacturing process - which you can see with the corresponding photos from the factory below.
'First the tea is delivered to the factory and weighed and checked'
'Next comes the withering : it depends on how wet the tea is how long this takes - I determine by hand when it's done'
'Then we roll the tea for 1.5 hours before oxidation at 6 hours at 27 C' - in this case the oxidation is carried out in a special room that you can see below :
Next is shaping - Mr Yang explains 'younger leaves take far less time that older ones- as a rule 25 minutes at 240 for a 2kg batch works well'
Once complete the tea is placed into baskets....
Before finally being placed in the dryer for 60 minutes at 105C
Finally the finished tea which you can purchase online and also enjoy at the Tea House. 'It is the human attitude and touch that makes the tea' Mr Yang shared - something we hear all across the tea world. I asked whether the people who work so hard to make this beautiful tea also enjoy it themselves. Mr Yang explained that the team here have the opportunity to substitute tea for part of their income. '2.5kg of fresh leaf makes 0.5kg of processed tea. So if one of the team here bring in 2.5kg of fresh leaf they can put that aside for their own tea rather than put it into their daily log. On the whole people here prefer to drink either the Hong Cha [red tea [which we call black tea] or white tea'
We spent some time wandering through the factory and watching the processes. As introduced at the beginning of the blog Mr Yang has been working here since the very start and he shared how he has seen much change during this time. 'I have seen a very big change in peoples living standards' he shared. 'Where people live and the infrastructure surrounding that has seen dramatic improvement. The biggest challenge for us has been the mindset. Local people only know this moment, this one day - they cannot see the long term - and of course our vision for this land and this community involves short steps forward every day towards a long term goal' We continued to walk and talk taking in the landscape.
We passed a house with a natural garland on the door : a 'charm' for good luck
Arriving back at the car we were now to head up into the higher part of the garden that feeds this factory. As we got in the car we started to feel some spots of rain - something that seemed almost impossible given that it had not rained for 6 months. It was indeed to rain and it rained HARD! As we sheltered we chatted a little more with Mr Yang
'We are an inclusive community in the cooperative and work hard to make sure that the voices of the people who work here are heard. Every plot of land has people who oversee its management. Each small group of 20-60 people in the cooperative has a leader voted for by their community/the people in the village every 3 years - although we are considering making this a 5 year election'
The rains cleared temporarily and we headed up into the garden to get a closer view of the tea bushes and the organic cultivation.
It was only a short respite so we scurried back down once again, into the car, to head to the local village for some tea and a chat with the most important people - the people who make their lives around tea cultivation. We were fortunate to get an invite to Mr Yen's house - a farmer who lives here with his wife and son - they are part of the WA ethnic minority whose houses you see across the hills adorned with cow horns - the symbol for their ethnic group
Mr Yen kindly ushered us in and we sat down at the table under the verandah for tea. The rain still pelting down around us this felt like a very cosy spot to rest a while. Mr Yen is predominantly a tea farmer but also grows rice and corn, some of which they keep and some of which they sell. He has been growing tea for 17 years before which he grew sugarcane - smiling he shared how tea was much easier - less heavy than sugarcane. 'Mr Xu has been very good to us' he shared while he poured the tea : 'he has helped us a lot - we just moved into this new house, supported by the government a few months ago - its just up the hill from our old place'. Mr Yen explained how last year the weather had been favourable but this year the rains were very late - 'the god from the sky did not take care of us' he gestured 'but today is a good day - you have brought the rains!' Despite the poor weather tea had started just after Chinese New Year - a period of the year that sees them start in the tea fields at 7am and finish around 6pm. 'We collect the leaf and send it to the collection area' he explained.
I wanted to ask Mr Yen more about the organic approach here. 'When Mr Yang came to us to tell us about the new [organic] approach we listened very carefully to what he had to say. We all knew that pesticides increased the yield of the land so we thought that Mr Yang was crazy to suggest this new way of doing things. We knew that there were foreign buyers for the tea so this was an incentive to follow the new way' It has been a long education for the farmers here : tea grown without pesticides often looks less attractive and grows more slowly. This slow growth delivers great returns to both the land and in the cup but this is something that is less apparent to the farmer. Mr Yen now recognises the benefits of the organic approach for both tea and the farmer no doubt also helped by the further support offered through group incentives, an approach that has been very effective. 'There is a collective responsibility. The group of farmers working in the organic area know that they have to work together in order to achieve the working bonus. If one member of the group does not comply and the crop is not accepted then they have to pay off the rest of the group - this acts as an excellent incentive to stay fully organic'. With the rain pouring down Mr Yen poured out some local corn wine and we toasted our meeting - brought together by tea
Once the drink has been enjoyed you turn the glass upside down onto your arm. If the drops run straight then you will be lucky. 'What happens if they don't' I ask? 'Just drink more!' they laughed
As we were preparing to leave Mrs Yen was extremely kind to show us her tradition Wa clothing for special occasions including this amazing head piece.
We waved goodbye thankful for the time the team had spent with us and the honest discussions we had enjoyed about the challenges and importance of the organic approach.
Time for dinner we headed back down into the town for a local feast of vegetables and more discussion. Tomorrow we were to rise early to meet Mr Xu at his office before heading onwards to Jingmai.
We rose early the next day and headed to the office of Mr Xu. I had first met with Mr Xu in 2017 and had been struck by his complete and unwavering commitment to the work here. We started with tea and while he was preparing it discussion turned to the collection of tea pets lining the front of his tea table.
Pointing to the frog he explained 'this creature will help us to get good business. In the morning he faces outwards as people head out to earn the money. In the evening he faces inwards as people come back with what they have earned. Of course we keep him well fed with tea all day!' As we sipped tea talk turned to the work being done here 'The organic route has been hard and expensive' Mr Xu explained ' I see the principles of organic as being really quite simple : 1. Pay the farmers a fair price & 2. Make organic affordable for consumers'
On my many travels I have seen some of the challenges in the Chinese organic movement for myself. The inspection of the soil by the authorities is sometimes weak leading to many 'fake' organic certifications - with no need to put all the work in that is needed for conversion these organisations are able to undercut the true organic producers. Undeterred Mr Xu has pushed on 'Now I have by EU organic certificate' he shared 'I can put this label on my packaging and it will really start to pay'
As we sipped the final tea conversation turned to the future 'In the future there will be more organic competition so I intend to certificate the other pieces of my land that are currently under natural management' Mr Xu shared 'I am going to change my organic certification organisation and move under the guidance of Beijing. This is just one part of the jigsaw - what is really at the heart of all of this work is the belief of the people and at the centre of this my own belief. This work comes from my heart - many people may know that organic is the right approach but they don't want to invest time in the process or time in the people. I never appreciated how long this road would be - I will not give up - far too much has been invested'
As we prepared to leave I asked Mr Xu what he would like to say to you, the people back in the UK buying and enjoying his tea. 'There are 3 things' he shared
1. This company is all about using the tea trade as a vehicle for poverty alleviation
2. Behind this tea is a full and unwavering commitment to the organic movement - I have sacrificed my pleasant family life for this organic journey, something I feel hugely responsible for - I will not give up
3. Finally the tea - the quality you enjoy is brought to you by 3 generations of black tea mastery - I hope you appreciate our black tea making skills!
I for one will raise a cup to that. As we left Mr Xu shared 'come back next year, come back every year and see the progress we are making!' ; an invitation that it will be hard to refuse. Until then enjoy Mr Xu's Dian Hong at home or in the Tea House