Miller harvests tea plants at Minto Island Growers, where she sees promise in Minto's tea crop.
// Photo by Sierra Breshears
In 2008 Elizabeth Miller and Jenkins took over the tea crop and other parts of the farm. They hired Balazs Henger, a tea fanatic from Chehalis, Wash., to harvest and process their tea. Half was for his own consumption, and the other half has gone to Miller and her husband so they can maintain a supply to sell at the farm stand, alongside the blueberries and tomatoes. Henger has held tea classes at the Minto farm, too, bringing more buzz.
Later this year, Miller and Jenkins will devote two to three more acres of their land to new tea plants. In October the couple applied for a federal grant to help cover the costs of processing, packaging and marketing their tea.
Commercial tea crops also grow on multiple Hawaiian islands, in South Carolina and in Burlington, Wash. The tea plants at Burlington’s Sakuma Bros. Farms & Market, which were propagated from cuttings off the Minto crop, have given birth to teas at the Sakuma farm stand and blends at PCC Natural Markets stores in the Seattle area.
But in Oregon, “all the data suggests it’s going to be tougher than tar to do it well,” says Ross Penhallegon, a horticulture agent with the Oregon State University Extension Service. Still, a stand of 23-year-old tea plants shows the crop has potential here, he says. A consistent supply of Oregon-grown tea could benefit from an industry on the rise. Wholesale tea sales in the United States grew from $1.84 billion in 1990 to $8.2 billion in 2011, according to the Tea Association of the U.S.A.
It’s too early for Miller to call tea Oregon’s next agriculture superstar. But Minto’s tea crop does look promising to her.
“We’ve seen excitement from our customer base,” says Miller, “and we’re pretty confident that what we produce would be met with enthusiasm and would have a willing market.”