Given a preference, nearly any tea drinker would rather have “pure” tea. Pure is clean. Pure give the sense of being closer to Nature – fewer steps away from Sun and Earth.
We choose to drink pure tea not only because of what we want to be closer to, but what we want to be farther from. Not that long ago, there was an anecdote about an herbal tea was being dried by truck exhaust during processing.
And so, we look to teas that are organic, or biodynamic, or some term that conveys a sense of being more pure.
But how are these terms used? What do they mean?
Here are a few terms you may have seen or heard in relation to growing quality teas:
3. Bokashi or other composting
All of these practices can contribute to tea’s growth in a healthier environment.
Organic tea farming is largely about practices that do not involve synthetic chemicals in growth, processing, and even handling. Organic pesticides and fertilizers do exist, and are allowed based on the organic standards being followed.
The organic status of tea (or other agricultural products) is usually certified or verified by an organization. In the U.S., that often involves the USDA’s NOP (National Organic Program) standards. Certification organizations, both state-run and commercial companies then inspect farms and tea product to verify that standards are being met.
For a USDA certified organic tea, you can often find the USDA organic label on the product package (There are rules about how and where the logo can be used on the package). Additionally, the certifying organization also needs to be listed on the product packaging. In order for the final product to be certified organic, every farm or organization that puts the tea in a package must be certified as well. If a non-certified tea company bought certified organic tea in bulk size, then repackaged that tea into smaller units themselves, the tea would have essentially been organic up to the point that the non-certified tea shop opened the bulk tea package.
There are several ways to know if a tea company is legitimately selling USDA certified organic tea. You can go to the USDA website of certified organic operations and search by companies that produce tea. A tea retailer should also be able to show you their certificate and certified product list. More info and examples of certificates can be found at Teas Etc.’s page: “Why Buy Organic.”
There are other organic standards and certification programs. Some teas will be certified organic by JAS. The Japanese Agricultural Standard’s fundamental criteria as applied to organic tea are similar to those of USDA criteria. Matcha Source is an example of a company offering JAS organic tea.
The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) also works with countries to establish national organic programs. As with JAS, these standards and certification processes may vary. Some IFOAM networks employ a Participatory Guarantee System that requires farmers and peers within the network to monitor each other to assure compliance. An example of a IFOAM network using the participatory Guarantee System in the U.S. is the Certified Naturally Grown Network.
Other tea farmers adopt organic practices without applying for any organic certification. In some cases, these farmers want to avoid the cost or hassle of certification processes, or have chosen to adopt traditional farming practices that were used before the widespread adoption of synthetic chemicals. These farmers may refer to their teas as organically-grown.
Biodynamic farming can be seen as a type of organic farming that takes a more holistic approach. Biodynamic farming eschews synthetic chemical inputs, but also goes further to include planting according to the sun, moon, and zodiac. It also advocates practices of using quartz crystal to collect energies from the Earth, a method that has not been scientifically proven to be effective.
Demeter is probably the most recognized biodynamic certification organization, and Demeter USA takes the USDA NOP standards as their minimum requirements, so their biodymanic certification includes USDA organic certification.
The biodynamic movement is quite active in India. The Bio-Dynamic Association of India reports increasing ranks of farms, including tea farmers, who are adopting biodynamic practices. Examples include the Teaneer teas of Vijayalakshmi Natural Farms and the farms in the Ambootia Tea Group featured by Nudo Darjeeling tea adoption program.
3. Bukashi Composting
Bukashi is a form of composting originally developed in Japan that added a micro-organism rich soil atop food waste to speed decomposition. With several forms of composting, the compost is allowed to decompose for weeks, months, or even years. Composting can be done according to organic standards procedures.
Tea farms all over the world, including Taiwan, Hawaii, and Japan use composting. I have seen farms in Taiwan that use peanut shells for compost and mulch. I have spoken to growers in Hawaii who use Bukashi or similar composting methods. This article from Rishi tea describes a Japanese tea farmer who uses compost.
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