When we started ela's, there were more than a few people questioning our sanity. Not spring chickens but not yet on the menu either so, experienced enough to think we could do tea right.
The fact is that having spent a working lifetime in tea and there has never been a more exciting, challenging or infuriating time to be in it. Sales of things called "tea" are at fever pitch and the value of purchases is going up but, ironically, as with most food supply chains, that bonanza is diluted to a point where it is but a fine echo by the time it reaches farmers.
And if I was to tell you that it takes a tea plucker, in some areas, a whole day to pluck 750 cups worth of leaf or say an hour for 1 family sized box of teabags. Add to this land cost, tea plant management, production costs, packing and shipping costs, ever before it is blended, packed and distributed to a supermarket shelf where we may buy it for $5 or less. Given this, is it likely that this is adequate compensation for the support of the industry, long term? Frankly, no!
Never mind that the art of plucking is under threat because difficult working conditions and natural parental aspirations are not inspiring the next generation to follow their parents into the fields. Trying to wring a living wage out of something that sells for $5 for a month's worth of drinking (Average retail box and consumption), after all the steps in between bush and cup, and, say, less than 20% getting back into the nimble fingers of those skilled and hardy people, does not a pretty picture paint.
And, I am not having a dig at Producers, they work day and night to add the Midas touch to otherwise bitter green leaf to create the dazzling array of cups presented from this one true tea tree.
The opacity to supply chain activities and costs is the hurdle to setting sustainable pricing on shelf, leaving retailers to price tea, according to their own competitive environment, relying on other marketing strategies to convey a sense of commercial sustainability to consumers.
This may not sound a big deal, the old excuse being " well they would not sell if they were not happy with the price" does not apply to a continuously harvested perennial, the leaf of which has to be processed prior to sale (approval for forward contracts). This dynamic leaves the Farmer and Producer at the mercy of the cashflow clock, an unhappy place in anything but a bull market.
Ironically, the farmers are not altogether blameless either; transparency can be hard to crowbar from some but, without sharing, gaps in understanding are an inevitability.
Only when costs and other significant points of pressure are recognized by all stakeholders can a pragmatic supply chain solution be derived.
As consumers, so removed from origin, what can we possibly do to help such an industry issue? How can we make sure our purchases minimize the chance of supporting unsustainable commercial practices.
Buy good tea; Frankly you probably think you don't know good from bad but it's whatever you like that counts and, invariably, that will be good tea.
Support all tea grades, that is small (teabag grade) and larger leaf teas. The Producer makes all grades at the same time so they have the same quality quotient (varying in oxidation and speed of infusion only!) and are relied on equally to make ends meet.
Buy tea consistently: We all like to experiment with teas and that's great but when you find something you like, support it so that it can keep putting a smile on your face, reward good Producers with future assurance and shine a light on what works, so that others can follow.
And, with a dirth of alternatives, consider buying those with at least a shout out to giving back, to securing decent working environments through certifications or other programming BUT remain inquisitive, question the validity of claims and ultimately, if the price seems too good to be true then it is probably to low to be good!!!