First in the state: Groundbreaking held for local tea farm
Bringing new meaning to the word groundbreaking, a ceremony was held Thursday morning as dignitaries took golden shovels in hand to help put the first of 250 new plants in the ground at FiLoLi Tea Farm, signifying the official start of operations at the East Lincoln County site.
Owner Jason McDonald welcomed more than 40 guests to the event marking Mississippi’s foray into the tea crop arena. As rain drizzled during his brief speech, the businessman joked that unpredictable weather had given him an appropriate first lesson in farming.
On hand to celebrate the occasion was Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Cindy Hyde-Smith, who expressed excitement over the project. “It’s almost unbelievable. I’ve attended lots of groundbreakings for all kinds of operations – catfish, beef, poultry, even ethanol – but in 82 counties, this is the only tea farm, and it’s right here at home,” she said.
“We are truly making agricultural history today,” Hyde-Smith said. The state official went on to tell the crowd that the idea of home-grown tea is creating quite a stir in the “ag world.”
“Everybody’s talking about it,” she added.
Tea consultant Nigel Melican, who traveled from the United Kingdom to lend his support, echoed Hyde-Smith’s thoughts. “This is truly a historic time for Mississippi,” he said, commending the state for joining others – Washington, Oregon, South Carolina, Alabama, Hawaii – already pinned on the map as tea producers.
“Mississippi is right up there with the leaders, and Jason will become the second-largest grower in the United States when his crop is completely planted next year,” Melican said.
Experts like Melican contend that the southwestern region of the state, with a subtropical climate and 50 inches of rain per year, is an ideal climate for tea plant production. Even so, plants will take three to five years to reach maturity, with the first harvest of tea leaves at the Brookhaven location not expected until 2017.
“That’s a long wait for most farmers,” Melican stressed, “but Jason is committed to this work.” Melican went on to explain that this nation’s high labor costs will be a challenge, when placed in competition with other nations where tea is commonly produced at a lower cost. “Farms like this one must be high-tech in order to succeed.”
Researchers from Mississippi State intend to do their part to help, and they left the FiLiLo Tea Farm groundbreaking with several tea plant specimens, bound for the university’s experiment station at Crystal Springs. “We will attempt to find out which cultivators work best in our climate, and which production techniques and management practices most benefit farmers,” explained Guihong Bi, MSU associate professor of horticulture.
State as well as local leaders attended Thursday’s event, including state Sen. Sally Doty, Brookhaven Mayor Joe Cox, Lincoln County Extension Agent Rebecca Bates, Lincoln County Sheriff Steve Rushing, and representatives from Brookhaven’s Board of Aldermen and the Brookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce.
State Rep. Becky Currie noted an increasing public interest in the area’s new crop in remarks she made during the program. “When people learn that Mississippi’s growing tea, the first thing they ask me is ‘Where can I get it?'”
As a partner in his family’s timber business, McDonald witnessed Hurricane Katrina’s devastating effects on farmers in that industry. His drive to secure a crop that would be able to withstand similar storms eventually led him to a South Carolina tea plantation, where he was inspired to put his hand to a new plow – producing tea.
“We’re actually ahead of schedule,” McDonald stated, referring to planting that will take this week and throughout the months ahead. “The plants are shipped to us from greenhouses in North Carolina in stages. We should have 60,000 plants cultivated by this time next year.”