Picking Tea

Tea is a plant that grows best in areas that are also what many people would consider ideal places to live. A subtropical climate with mild, if any, winters and enough rain to give an average of 20 inches throughout the year. Places like southern China, Argentina and Sri Lanka are examples of these places. Not blisteringly hot in the summer, but with enough sun to encourage growth throughout the year. Where you find tea, you will find wondrous places to visit and take a holiday.

Picking tea is a delicate process, at least for the better teas. Machine harvesting is rough, resulting in damage to branches and often including more stem than us desired by tea aficionados. The light touch and precision over power means that tea harvesting around the world employs many women. In countries where sexual equality has not been the social norm, this gives women independence and income of their own.

Tea farms across the world have become garden like, but this is not for the accompanying visual appeal, but for the efficient harvesting. The plants are placed side by side and trimmed to keep them at roughly waist height, where as in the wild the bush like plant would grow to a tree nearly thirty feet tall. In ancient texts from China, references give us an image of workers having to climb trees to pick leaves and often cutting branches down to pick the leaves at ground level. Over centuries, careful cultivation of the tea plants has given an optimal height for human processing of the harvest.

The workers walk between rows of plants, choosing leaves that are ripe, and leaving others to finish growing. The timing of which leaves to pick depends on both the location of the farm, time of year and desired tea. The youngest leaves will still have a light halo of fine filaments, which is used to make white tea. More mature leaves will produce a stronger flavor with higher levels of caffeine. The further   either north or south the farm, the shorter the harvesting season as well. The workers at the northern most farms will only be able to gather teas during the spring and summer, while those closer to the equator can work almost year round.

As the worker selects the leaves of the right color and size, they are also looking for damaged leaves or those that show signs of an infection in the plant. A simple colored piece of cloth or other sign near the plant will enable other workers to inspect the damage and determine if the plant needs to be removed or simply a few branches trimmed.  Meanwhile, the harvest goes on.

Harvesting tea is not as labor intensive as other crops. Putting too many leaves in the cloth sacks or wicker baskets can result in leaves being crushed, which is not in the least desired. So workers are careful to gather only so much as will fill the container without compressing the leaves at the bottom. The size of the farms does mean that workers do a lot of walking, but they are not required to carry so much that they are injured. This is another factor that enables women to be gainfully employed in areas that they otherwise would not have options. Again, it is the quality of the work rather than the quantity of the leaves that means more.

Tea is more than a beverage, it is a way to enable people in developing countries to have a continuing source of income using the environment around them. Where tea is grown, people have livelihoods and social tensions tend to be lightened. The idea that tea is a calming influence goes further than a soothing cup a the end of the day.

www.unityteapots.com sells fine Asian tea ware, and is a great source to find a Japanese cast iron tea pot, a kyusu, or a yixing clay teapot.

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