A tale of tea: Local tea farm ready for next step
Published 9:23 pm Saturday, May 16, 2015
The owners of the Great Mississippi Tea Company will soon be able to finally taste the rewards of years of preparation and research.
“We are really excited to see what it’s going to taste like, we haven’t tasted our tea yet,” said owner Jason McDonald. “Our elevation and everything should tell us we’re going to be like one of the regions in India.”
The Brookhaven tea farmers will begin small-batch harvesting and production in conjunction with Bromwich tea beginning this fall, the culmination of a three-year “learning experience.” Tea plants do not reach maturity for three years. McDonald started the farm in 2012 with partner, Timmy Gipson, and mother, Sheila Pitarro McDonald, after looking for a crop that would sustain hurricanes.
“This September will be the first batch,” McDonald said. “Next year should start small batching and building up. In September, we will have a person here for a month from Sri Lanka to help us process tea.”
McDonald, a Brookhaven native, said though his grandparents were in agriculture, he had relatively little background in farming before entering the tea business. Having studied religion and law in college, he said not being formally educated in the field has turned into a positive.
“There’s a few people who have gone into [tea] with a background in agriculture, and it seems they are stuck in a rut of ‘this is how it has to be done,'” McDonald said. “I don’t know how it has to be done anyway, so I will entertain any idea and try everything we can to make an ethical and clean product.”
The company hired an international consultant, Nigel Melican, and report back data from the farm to see what’s working. They frequently work with the Mississippi State extension service, LSU and Auburn.
“This is techy stuff — it’s geek farming,” McDonald said. “This ain’t your grandma and grandpa’s farm anymore. It’s been a wild ride — it’s not all been great, we’ve lost some plants. It’s not all roses. It’s trial and error – but it’s keeping logs and notes. If we do something, we do it differently. It’s very methodical. It’s the science of farming with a little bit of art.”
There are commercial tea ventures in 16 states, and McDonald views U.S. grown tea as a budding industry. He says he sees U.S. grown tea being a household item within the next five to 10 years. McDonald has travelled to many states and recently to India and Nepal to learn more about tea. This year, he was a nominee for a Best Personality award at the World Tea Expo in Long Beach, California. Next he plans to visit China and Japan and has hopes of venturing to New Zealand and Africa. Through the tea industry he has met many friends and founded the U.S. League of Tea Growers, whose members visited Brookhaven in February.
The owners are also looking to invest in the community in the future by opening a tea factory to process their product in downtown Brookhaven, by renovating the Case Tire and Supply building on First Street.
“Brookhaven is kind of an oddity because if you go to some of these small towns, they’ve just dried up and blown away, but in Brookhaven there is a basis for a very strong economy,” McDonald said. “Tourism could bring people in from all over the world and provide hotels with business, restaurants business and agri-tourism showcasing Brookhaven.”
McDonald said these last three years, while labor intensive, never felt like work.
“I may work 50 to 60 hours a week but I am just much happier, and I think people have noticed it,” McDonald said “People who have known me a while will say there’s something different—it’s a passion, and I guess recognizing a passion looks good on a person.”
For more information on the Great Mississippi Tea Company, go to greatmsteacompany.com or facebook.com/theGreat MississippiTeaCompany.