If you know anything about Red Blossom Tea Company, we hope it’s that we source pure teas. We spend our sourcing trips seeking out small farms, building relationships with growers and crafters, and tasting a massive variety of teas to cultivate a selection of delicious, unadulterated tea leaves.
But even though many of our teas are naturally grown, they are not certified organic by the USDA yet. While we do have preliminary certifications from the National Organic Program (NOP) for several of our teas, we also know that in the world of Chinese tea, an organic label doesn't always indicate the best quality.
Why is this, you ask? Isn’t organic tea farming definitively superior to “conventional” methods? Does the lack of organic certification indicate that these teas are contaminated with chemicals? And if a tea farm is using natural growing methods, why wouldn’t they be certified as an organic farm?
To answer these questions, we first need to define the difference between traditional and organic teas. Then, we’ll discuss why organic certification is not always the best indicator of quality, and how we personally ensure the farms we work with are growing responsibly.
What is Traditional Tea?
At the most basic level, traditional farming refers to small scale agriculture. Traditional farmers use natural methods of pest control, allow biodiversity to keep the soil rich, and cultivate their crops with natural fertilizers. This is a type of agriculture that pre-dates the plantation method of farming, and is a skill that many tea farms in China have been refining for generations.
In the context of tea farming, “traditional” takes on a broader meaning. It describes not only the farming methods, but also the most prized regions for cultivation of a particular tea. For example, while the Da Bai (“Big White”) tea variety can be grown anywhere, a traditional white tea is grown in Fuding County, Fujian. As the historic home of this style, the terroir of this region is inextricably linked to the flavor of traditional white teas. The relatively small area of this region commands higher prices for these premium white teas, while cheaper imitations proliferate elsewhere.
Under Mao, these traditional growing regions were organized into communes, but a focus on industrialization caused widespread famine and forced a return to more historical method of farming. The traditional tea farmland was split up, and parceled out to families that could prove they had worked the land. Each family got a very small farm, leased by the government, with terms lasting 99 or 999 years.
Today, the average size of a farm in China is just 1.6 acres (compared with 400 acres in the US). It’s difficult for the average farmer make a profit on such a small piece of land, but if the farm happens to lie in one of the traditional tea growing regions of China, then they're in luck. His land, and his tea, is famous. It has developed a reputation for having the right terroir, or for being home to the best crafters. His tea is sought after by government officials, given as gifts to diplomats, and maybe even shipped across the world to competitions and connoisseurs. To eschew tradition is to give up all that, and the profits that go with it.
Moreover, in a country that reveres tradition, the tea farmers that occupy this prized land take their role seriously. They maintain old methods of growing and crafting the leaves, because they know these elements are essential to making the best tea.
What is Organic Tea?
To be clear, we are in no way opposed to organic farming. We do make an effort to source from organic farms, especially in areas where pesticide use is common. As a direct response to the prevalence of monoculture farming, buying organic is a great way for consumers to make their priorities clear. Organic certification boards enforce strict regulations, ensuring that “organic” labels actually mean something. In the US, the USDA standards for certification cover farming practices, soil quality, and use of pesticides, among other factors.
But the organic label is not a blanket promise of completely natural farming methods. USDA guidelines stipulate that farmers are expected to rely on natural substances and methods “to the fullest extent possible”. While this may reduce the contaminants in an organic tea, it does not necessarily eliminate them. Many synthetic substances deemed safe are listed as exceptions to the basic guidelines.
Mostly, the organic label is a marketing technique. When large companies or new farmers invest in the organic label, they earn customers, and can charge more for their product. In tea, an organic certification can boost trust in a common brand name, or put a young tea farm on the map. This is where organic regulations work well, as they encourage these companies to focus on making a quality product, rather than producing the maximum quantity.
In China, most traditional farms are not certified organic, even if they've been growing tea without synthetic additives or modern methods for generations. Their tea commands high prices without certification, and they wouldn’t be able to produce enough to satisfy greater demand. The farms that are certified organic are usually newer operations, farming on less reputable land. These 'young' farms seek organic certification in order to compete with the established reputation of traditional terroir.
The Cost of Certification
So if traditional farms are using organic methods anyway, why don’t they seek certification? Even if they don’t need to expand their customer base, wouldn’t organic certification be a good thing? If certification is meant to inform the consumer, it almost seems as if organic status should be conferred upon verified sources, whether or not they have applied.
Unfortunately, this is not how it works. The primary reason many farms do not seek certification is the high fees associated with organic certification. Then, even after the fees are paid and the certification process begins, there are also inspections, tests, and new standards the farm has to comply with, all of which incur additional costs. Once a farm is certified, they must also pay extra fees to apply for preliminary certification of individual batches, as well as a percentage of the sales revenue generated when the tea is sold.
Any imported product labeled 'organic' in the US must match the criteria for USDA certification, and the process for certification in China is equally costly and rigorous. Many farmers choose to forego certification rather than uproot the old grove tea plants that lend flavor complexity to their crops. For example, organic produce in the United States must be grown in soil with no prohibited substances for the previous 3 years. In China, the wait is 2 years, but if a farm tests positive for any banned materials after certification, the wait to reapply is increased to 5 years!
Plus, Chinese farmers face a familiar dilemma in a domestic market just beginning to embrace organic products. They are reluctant to invest the upfront capital for organic certification without a reliable buyer lined up. Due in part to rising labor costs, organic rice in China is sold for nearly six times the price of conventional rice, and farmers are hesitant to invest so much in a product that may not sell.
Finally, the small size of China’s farms means that crops are easily cross-contaminated. Even on a certified organic farm, a neighbor using pesticides may contaminate the crop, causing failed inspections and additional fees. Even antibiotic residue from livestock manure used as fertilizer can result in a failed inspection.
Faced with all the fees and stringent regulations that certified farms have to comply with, many small, traditional tea farms avoid the added burden even when they are compliant with organic standards. They don't feel they need to prove what they already know: traditional and natural tea growing methods produce the best quality tea without reliance on modern pesticides.
Verifying Quality with Independent Testing
How can we tell whether a tea is free of synthetic chemicals? There are, to be sure, countless family owned tea farms that use synthetic pesticides and fertilizers to increase their crop yields.
Even if they don’t, cross contamination from a nearby farm is still be a concern. For example, in Taiwan, tea fields are often surrounded by betel nut trees. Without pesticides, the desirable nuts are scavenged before ripening, and the crop is lost. With every spray, the nearby tea plants are inevitably exposed to pesticides as well. Responsible farmers must work with their neighbors to ensure no spraying contaminates the tea during harvest season.
Our first line of defense against chemically contaminated teas is also the backbone of our sourcing strategy. We go to the farm. When we visit in person, we are able to see the growing conditions and pest control techniques used on each farm. For instance, we always like to see healthy underbrush in the tea fields, as evidence that no herbicides have been used.
Also, as legal exporters, all of our teas are tested by CIQ (Chinese Inspection Quarantine) before leaving China. In response to worldwide concerns about heavy metals and other contaminants in Chinese exports, the regulations imposed by CIQ are actually quite stringent. By contrast, US import laws for tea do not require chemical testing.
At Red Blossom, we have samples of every tea we import independently tested for the presence of more than 300 different common agricultural chemicals. Without firm US regulations in place, we use the strict EU guidelines to evaluate the results of these independent tests. This process is not required by law, but we feel that it best serves our customers to verify the safety and integrity of our products, rather than relying on organic certification.
By building relationships with farmers we trust, and performing independent tests to verify that each tea we offer is free of synthetic additives, we are able to source traditional teas that not only taste exceptional, but are free from contamination. So, in the future, instead of only looking for an organic label, you can focus on discovering the complex flavors of traditionally crafted teas.
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Research by Nicki France