Sweet Tea:

Published 7:00 pm Sunday, July 14, 2013

     Mississippi has long been known for its agricultural charms, but a new company is working toward branching the state’s ag resources into tea growing.

     FiLoLi Tea Farm, founded by Jason McDonald, is aimed at being a leader in the tea industry. McDonald said most tea is not grown in first-world countries because the cost of labor is much higher. His 14-acre undertaking in East Lincoln County is the second largest in the country, after a plantation in Charleston, S.C.

     “I didn’t know we didn’t grow it,” McDonald said, explaining his desire to produce American-grown tea.

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     While visiting the Charleston Tea Plantation, McDonald learned that the tea plant, a camellia species, thrives in hot, humid weather.

     “Well, I thought, that sounds a lot like home,” he said.

     In the tea industry, there are two main categories: commodity and specialty. Commodity is traditional, everyday tea. Specialty tea, on the other hand, can be a lot more expensive, going for as much as $1,500 or $2,000 a pound. McDonald has linked with a company called Tealet, which is headquartered in Hawaii, to help with a future promotion of specialty teas once production is fully under way.

     Elyse Peterson, CEO and founder of Tealet, made a visit to McDonald last week. She believes the rich tea culture already in place in Mississippi will benefit an emergence in specialty tea.

     “I think the history and heritage will play into it,” she said while in Brookhaven last week.

     With a high prospect in demand, the stage is set for a great market for FiLoLi and any who follow, she explained.

     “Don’t be surprised to see, in the next 10 years, big things happening in the state with tea,” she said.

     McDonald said the unique attitude of Tealet allows an open forum for tea growers to connect directly to tea buyers. Ultimately, he said this will be what allows tea to succeed in the United States. Because of labor laws protecting employees, tea growers are not able to cut costs in the United States like they can in other countries.

     Tealet cuts out the broker middleman, enabling the growers to retain about 10 times as much profit, she said.

     McDonald also is looking toward creating a processing plant in Brookhaven that will be able to handle approximately 150 acres of crop. He said the plant will be able to work with anyone within about a 2.5-hour radius, which covers about half of the state.

     “We’re trying to find a working model that can be replicated,” he said.

     McDonald said the success of the farm so far would not be possible without the help of Cindy Hyde-Smith, Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce, and Rebecca Bates, county coordinator, at the Lincoln County Mississippi State Extension Service.

     “The state is really behind our agricultural project,” he said.

     McDonald expects planting to pick up over the next six months.

     He is also hoping to branch into agri-tourism with a welcome center on the farm, as well providing a venue for weddings and events.

     McDonald also has been working hard to create the U.S. League of Tea Growers. The goal is to unite the few tea growers in the country.

     With all these facets, McDonald is looking for FiLoLi to make a large economic impact on the area.