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Deconstructing the Romanticized Image of the Chinese Tea Farmer

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What is your vision of a Chinese tea farmer? Is it a happy, friendly person who lives a simple life in a remote village, and cares only for their tea? Or, is it a young 28 year-old who only recently got into tea as a way to make some money?

While both versions of farmers do exist, on my travels I am seeing more and more of the second type, especially as the first type starts to age into retirement.

Tea drinkers in Europe and the US tend to have this idea that every farmer that makes tea is a highly skilled craftsperson who cares deeply for the tea leaves and the final flavor. While there are many farmers like this, there are also quite a few who are not. I want to take this time and introduce you to a few types of farmers who may not fit the romanticized simple farmer image, but make up a large part of the market today.

A Fujian tea farmer takes a call

The internet is changing the game for tea farmers. In the past they had to rely on someone to be a middle man, coming to them and buying their tea to sell to others. With the internet, they can sell directly themselves, giving them more control over the asking price.

What you are starting to see also is younger generations moving out of the village and into a nearby large city to sell their family’s teas. Sometimes they go back to their old home and help make tea during the season, or sometimes they can be solely in charge of wholesale for their extended family.

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The point is: farmers are no longer necessarily humble workers living in remote villages. Don’t be surprised if you are talking to a farmer and he (generally it is a he, for now) asks you to meet him in a city such as Quanzhou or Xiamen; and this isn’t a bad thing. These people can sometimes source not just from their own household but from their extended family or village as well, meaning that their range of teas can be wider than if you approached a single household. Also, since they are constantly communicating with more than one family, they tend to know more than the average farmer — because, surprisingly, farmers don’t always know that much about tea.

Imagine you have a family that has been making tea for generations and are the type of farmer every tea sourcer is looking for. Then you have your neighbors to the right and left whose families don’t make any tea and really have no interest in it, until the tea from their village starts selling for a high price. They see you making money and they want to make money too. Every family in these villages has land that could produce tea, so they convert their land into tea fields. Families who have never made tea before are now making tea in the hopes of raking in some money, and to be honest who can blame them? 

Tea villages can be very small and remote, with very little opportunity. Just last week I was in a village and I asked a young, strong-looking man what his job was and he calmly told me he didn’t have one. His village had one store and one restaurant/KTV (karaoke bar) that had just opened last year. There was nowhere he could really look for a job in his village, even if he wanted to. Families start making tea as a way to make some more income. The problem is, when you just start making tea for the money, you tend to care a little less about best practices and a little more about what’s easy and what sells (an issue which can be a struggle for experienced tea makers as well).

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These farmers also don’t have a deep understanding of the tea-making process. They rely more on mechanized tea-making than handmade techniques. The young strong man mentioned before later tried to sell me his undercooked oolong. In the search for a little more income for the family, many tea farmers actually care very little for the integrity of their tea, and just want to sell their leaves.

The tea market is extremely complex. Makers range from people just wanting to make a dollar, to true tea masters who care deeply about their tea and sometimes sacrifice money in order to keep to traditions. By no means can you say that all tea farmers are like this or that. Above I’ve mostly described young farmers as being more modern and financially driven, but just last week I was sitting with a young farmer whose eyes lit up when I mentioned I was looking for charcoal-baked tea and not electric oven baked. He was excited for someone to explore traditional tea with in order to produce more quality.

But it is naïve to think that all farmers are countryside simpletons who are in tune with the dao — the image that sometimes is portrayed. Tea farmers, like all people, are complex and diverse in both personalities and backgrounds. This is an honest way to think of tea farmers because in the end, tea farmers are just people who happen to make tea.

Main photo: Gande, a Tie Guan Yin tea maker who also runs a shop in Shanghai (all pictures by Dylan Conroy).

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Dylan Conroy
    Born and raised in New York City, now living in China, everything Dylan does relates to tea. He always carries two gaiwans and is quick to give people free tea if they show even the slightly interest. His ultimate goal is to make tea as widely appreciated and understood as wine is in the West. He has his own blog, www.thesweetestdew.com, which is dedicated solely to tea education.

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