There are three main tea farming methods that determine how the tea is grown and processed. Each specific method has a tremendous effect on the final appeal of the tea.
Conventional tea farming
Conventional tea farming [慣行栽培; kankō saibai] is the mode for tea farming that is commonly applied in industrial and large scale, contemporary cultivating contexts. The tea that is available on the market in Japan is, if not by default, grown according to conventional farming methods, and thus it is this kind of tea that can be readily obtained at local supermarkets and prestigious tea vendors alike. This way of farming does not eschew the use of chemical fertilizers and agrochemicals such as pesticides and herbicides, and applies them in correspondence to the requirements for the seasons and environmental circumstances. Although the allowed substances are listed in an official decree issued by the Japanese government, there is no limit to the amount and frequency on which these substances can be applied, leaving it up to the judgment of the farmers themselves to decide what is appropriate.
As indicated in the previous chapter, the contemporary focus on a lush umami flavor in green tea is what demands from manufacturers a dedicated approach to enhance the amino value in the product they create. Apart from the traditional shading techniques, an advance in our understanding of chemistry has made it possible to devise substances that can artificially aid the producer with this objective. The downside of this however, is that the tea industry is digging itself deeper and deeper in an endless vicious circle. The desire for a stronger umami flavor demands from the manufacturer that he employs measureless amounts of chemical substances to, somewhat forcibly, ‘fatten’ his crops. Such juicy crops of course look just as appealing to harmful termites and other little vermin that invite themselves to nibble away on the vulnerable tea buds prior to harvest. This nullifies the effect of the thorough care the manufacturer has taken in inseminating his garden, and calls for more radical approaches. This time he sprays his garden with chemicals that repel bugs and other pests and scourges.
The illusive ease with which he has been able to obtain a ‘more delicious’ product now opens his eyes to other benefits as ease of labor, and similar ‘quick-win’ approaches. (You could almost say that he begins to feel invincible and dominant over the forces of nature.) The accumulation of such procedures deviates his tea manufacturing from growing a natural crop to using measures to deflect unwanted natural influences and set the natural circumstances of the environment completely to one’s hand. Mountains are leveled, the soil becomes unfertile, and the bushes become dependent on soil amendment for their growth and survival. As a result, ‘tea’ becomes molded into the form we wish it to become, while we neglect the original appeal of the tea bush itself. In addition, the farmer becomes dependent on fertilizer for his profits that are now based on the amino value in his crop, and the bushes are at the mercy of agrochemicals to safeguard their survival. This vicious circle will continue to spiral down for as long as our preference is focused on obtaining a greater amino value in the tealeaf. And for as long as these practices continue to be employed, we continue to put not only the balance of our natural environment at risk, we also gravely endanger the health of our fellow people, and that of our own.
Organic tea farming
Organic tea farming [有機栽培; yūki saibai] in essence omits the use of any agrochemicals and most chemical fertilizers. Instead substances that are of a ‘natural’ nature (ea. not chemically altered) are used. Examples of substances that are often employed by tea growers in Japan are animal-, or plant-base fertilizers such as livestock excrements, fishmeal, bone meal, oil cake from rapeseed, compost, straw and other natural materials such as fallen leaves and branches, and pampas grass.
Organic tea farming in Japan is regulated under the ‘Japanese Agricultural Standards’ (JAS) guidelines for ‘Organic Foods’ published by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. The certification and assessment of products is conducted by Registered Certifying Bodies that conduct tests and take care of administration on behalf of the MAFF. The organic standards are defined based on a ‘positive list’ system, which includes descriptions of products that are allowed for use on the field.
The main function of the Standards system is to prohibit misleading labeling of products that are not organically produced at all. They set the standard for labeling procedures in order to protect manufacturers, and safeguard the organic ‘brand’, but fail to define a standard for what ‘organic’ produce should be, while the education towards the people on how non-organic products affect our health and environment is being neglected.
The majority of consumers in Japan are convinced of the fact that everything that is produced on Japanese soil is good for their health. This blind trust in the country’s policy and its manufacturers inevitably limits the necessity for a movement to promote organic products. The main appeal of organic products is that it is a healthier and more environmentally friendly solution to the more perilous chemical applications that are commonly used. But, in the face of an already safe product line, and a blind trust in supermarket shelves, limits the market for organic products, and in effect leaves producers without a drive to even consider to begin manufacturing organic products.
In addition, organic tea is being looked down upon by the tea industry. Contemporarily, green tea is assessed in terms of umami flavor. Only if the amount of umami is high, and the sweetness is strong, then the quality of the product is considered positively. Bringing about a strong umami value in the tea largely depends on the amounts of added nutrition to the roots, and it goes without saying that chemically altered products are much more effective in achieving the desired result. In the case of organic products, the capacity for flavor enhancement is much more limited, and as a result, organic teas are perceived lesser in quality by the contemporary tea industry. It is even so that organic teas are not even allowed a shot at the yearly tea auction, which is reserved for conventional producers, and frequented by large scale industrial wholesalers and tea vendors.
When the consumers are not educated to understand the difference between conventional manufacturing and organic products, and the tea industry as a whole is not supportive of organic tea and dismisses it as inferior, then this truly makes it a scary and risky business for tea producers to go all-in on organic tea production. Yet, I think that organic tea has much more to offer than just being protective of our health and environment, and tea in general has a much greater capacity than the limited focus on umami flavor. When assessing organic tea, I feel that we need to change our perception and approach to the product, by seeing it in separation (ea. as a different type of product) from conventional mass-produced teas.
A first step would be to stop comparing organic products to conventional products. An organic sencha can impossibly be compared to a conventionally produced sencha, and it is even the more absurd to look for similar flavor patterns in the organic product. It is impossible to achieve the same lushness of flavor with organic growth as is common for conventional products. Is it even necessary to imitate a crop that in recent years has become possible to produce through artificial methods? Considering that over 60 years ago the use of chemicals on the fields, and mechanized equipment in the factories wasn’t as widely spread as it has today, and 100 years ago people wouldn’t have thought of the possibility for such approaches yet. What we call ‘organic’ now – and promote as a fashionable ‘brand’ – is what was universal in the past. This being said, I believe that it is the organic tea that is representative of Japan’s more than 800 years of tea farming tradition. In fact, what I believe is that organic tea shouldn’t merely be ‘organic by certification’, but ‘organic by being in harmony with nature’ just the way it has always been.
Natural tea farming
Natural tea farming [自然栽培; shizen saibai] solely relies on the vitality of the plant’s natural environment to provide the nourishment and protection for its growth. No agricultural products of any kind (not even organic products) are applied to the soil or roots of the bushes, which allows them to develop, as they would have been growing as wildly on the mountain flanks. This method is more extreme than the common organic practices, but brings about an absolutely natural vigor in the finished product, complemented by a taste and aroma that can only be obtained in that specific area those bushes have been growing.
The producer in turn has the responsibility for this cultivation method to work to maintain an environment that can allow the bushes to develop relying solely on their own vitality. Specifically, this means that the producer perceives the qualities of the grounds on which his bushes grow. For example, in similarity to residential grounds or sports grounds, farmland that has been leveled by heavy machinery is likewise only capable of housing weeds and grasses. On the contrary, mountains provide fertile grounds for the growth of trees and shrubs. This knowledge helps the manufacturers of natural tea to understand that their tea bushes will grow better in environments that are similar to the rich environments and un-outfitted mountain flank provides.
The simple reason for this is that, while in the natural world an abundance of different plants and living creatures exist in coexistence, the tea bushes too, instead of growing in an environment solely of their own, are likely to flourish better when growing in harmony with the surrounding ecosystem, benefitting from the advantages of the food chain.
However, natural tea farming is not a matter of entrusting everything directly and solely to nature itself. Should the tea garden be left abandoned, it will quickly overgrow into mere forestland, and therefore at least requires the care and maintenance of the farmer. This is the difference between ‘wild growth’ and ‘natural farming’. When the farmer maintains a conscious care of his farm, then only can the tea garden develop its natural rhythm.
Through the modernization of farming methods and the implementation of advanced machines, facilities, agricultural products, etc. people have become able to change and influence (dominate) the rhythm of the growth of the tea bushes (and agricultural produce in general). It can be said that through the deviations that are inherent to such procedures, we have also become able to gain a clearer outlook on the true essence of tea, and the values that are universal and unchanging throughout our existence. It is this essence to which manufacturers of a natural tea adhere. Natural tea farming is by no means a return to a nostalgic past. It is an approach that incorporates essential values that are based on our history and our contemporary condition, and that provide us the tools to understand how to ‘let tea be tea’, and to ‘let people be people.’ It is only because natural methods were part of the lives of our predecessors since they lived in harmony with their natural environment more than we do now, that we tend to see natural farming merely as a nostalgic escape. But in fact, it is the belief of such contemporary manufacturers that, to remain sincere towards our natural environment is the only appropriate way to connect the present to a bright future for our grandchildren.