BY JORDAN NOVET
Elizabeth Miller and Chris Jenkins run Minto Island Growers, a farm outside Salem. They plan to focus on their half acre of tea plants and move into a wider retail market with their tea.
// Photo by Sierra Breshears
The couple in charge of Minto Island Growers, a farm straddling Salem city limits, has become adept at growing and selling produce, and now they’re ready to focus more on a different part of the farm: a half-acre stand of tea plants.
Despite a horticulture expert’s view that tea is very difficult to grow in Oregon, they’re plotting ways to make a finished product on-site and get it out to a wider retail market.
“It’s a unique specialty crop in Oregon, and we think there’s a market opportunity for it,” says Elizabeth Miller, who runs the farm with her husband, Chris Jenkins.
Customers of the on-site farm stand like the teas — mostly green and oolong. Retailers have expressed interest too. A Eugene tea importer and tea bar, J-Tea International, introduced its own version of tea from Minto in November, for $4 a cup. A manager at a Salem health-food store says he might like to stock Minto tea. And Steve Smith, a former partner in Stash Tea Co. and the founder of the tea company Tazo, says he would be interested in carrying Oregon-grown tea at the Portland tasting room of his current company, Steven Smith Teamaker.
“We get a lot of culinary tourists in our shop, and I think that having Oregon-grown products would be highly appealing,” Smith says.
Smith himself was involved in tea’s introduction to Oregon. In 1989 he and the other Stash partners paid the expenses for an agriculture consultant, John Vendeland, to visit the site of a former tea plantation in South Carolina and come back with thousands of different kinds of Camellia sinensis seeds. “We were thinking of Oregon as a new origin [for tea],” Vendeland recalls. He started the plants in a greenhouse near Corvallis, to see which ones were suitable for growth outdoors. Half of the plants went outside the Stash office in Tigard; they all died. Vendeland brought the rest to Minto Island Growers, which a former business contact — Elizabeth Miller’s father, Rob — was running at the time under the name Mt. Jefferson Farms.
For years the tea crop was a research-and-development project, not a source of income, Rob Miller says. The idea was to figure out which plants had the best chance of thriving in the Willamette Valley. Five or six varieties stood out, Vendeland says.