[CASE STUDY] GROWING A NEW CULTIVAR TEA GARDEN FROM SEED

The majority of tea gardens in Japan are cultivated from registered cultivar species. While cultivars became available to farmers during the 1960’s, most producers only began converting their tea gardens to cultivar farms from the mid-1970’s onward due the high initial cost of conversion. At Fumiaki Iwata’s tea garden in Nara, Tsukigase too, his parents converted a lot of their land to cultivar bushes. During this period of technical advancement and the increased possibility for artificial amendment of crops, his parents were the first in the region to stay true to natural and organic farming methods and have continued to question the crux to true tea farming from the stance that a tea bush should be able to grow naturally as it would grow in the wild.

Contributing to the local environment

small seed-grown cultivar bushes at Nara tea garden

Fumiaki believes that his greatest contribution to the local region are his efforts to take over and win abandoned tea farms. During recent years many producers are abandoning their tea gardens because the majority of tea farmers are gradually growing older, and their sons and daughters aren’t coming home to take over the farm. Their age doesn’t allow them to continue working the fields since the labor has become too heavy, and as a result they are pressed by reality to terminate their farming activities. When a tea garden is abandoned, the land rapidly turns into forestland, overgrowing with bamboo grass and other vegetation. Such areas are limited to people, but are a favorite habitat for wild boars, which form an impediment to other farming activities in the region. Fumiaki has recognized that maintaining such thickets, allows him to make a great contribution to the region as a whole, and at the same time live his philosophy to farm an absolutely natural tea, by only employing natural materials found in the direct precincts of the land.

Organic tea garden

When his parents started organic farming in 1984 they still used fertilizers from external resources such as animal waste, lees from canola oil from distant factories, etc. Fumiaki however when he took over the farm decided that for a bush to grow authentically, it needs to be nourished naturally with what is available in its direct surroundings. This truly allows for a product that is indicative of the traits and specifications of its environment. In succession, he took ‘foreign’ nourishment off the menu and began feeding his bushes with forest-litter and other natural vegetation that could be obtained in the vicinity of the farm as the sole source of nutrition from 2011 onward.

At the base of his philosophy lies the notion of a tree growing naturally on a mountain flank. Although there is no human interference, trees grow thick and tall in their natural environment. Fumiaki believes that if tea bushes too – which essentially are trees as well – are allowed to grow on an unaltered mountain flank, they in fact don’t need any addition to the soil to survive. Therefore, he makes a clear distinction between ‘Tea Mountains’ and ‘Tea Farms’. Tea Mountains are the natural plots of land on which forestation used to grow, and on which now tea bushes have been planted. Tea Farms on the other hand are plots of land that have been leveled by heavy machinery, thereby having improved the productivity and ease of labor for the farmers. In this case however, it is often so that the fertile topsoil is removed, and that only a non-fertile soil remains. At such locations tea bushes become dependent on added nutrition for their growth and survival.

A natural approach

small seed-grown cultivar bushes at Nara tea garden

It is exactly in this way that Fumiaki treats the gardens he has under his care. At Tea Mountains he allows his bushes to grow naturally, while at Tea Farms he nourishes the soil with natural vegetation he obtains in the local surroundings at neighboring forests, or through exploitation of overgrown thickets of bamboo grass. As indicated earlier, Fumiaki contributes to his local community by maintaining such overgrown fields, but doesn’t necessarily return all of them to tea gardens. For the 7ha of tea farmland he manages, he administers 3ha of wasteland. From these plots of land he obtains the local, natural manure he requires by mowing weeds and harvesting its bamboo and pampas grass.

At one of the many overgrown plots of land he manages, Fumiaki has commenced with a new experiment in Spring 2017. This thicket used to be a rather extensive tea mountain, maintaining the original fertile topsoil of the garden on the sloping sides of the mountain. With the help of mechanized equipment Fumiaki has managed to remove the grasses and weeds that were by this time growing high above the height of a regular person, and has also disposed of the remaining tea bushes. The vegetation he has pulled was shredded became fertilizer for his tea gardens.

Growing a cultivar tea garden from seeds?

At this newly obtained plot of land the farmer has planted approximately 50,000 seeds, which he obtained from a variety of cultivars. However, when he planted those seeds, he didn’t plant one seed in each location he wanted a tea bush to grown; he instead inserted eight seeds per hole. His intentions are to grow a variety of cultivars, planted from the seed. As explained earlier, cultivars are grown from cuttings to allow for cloning of one particular species, and to maintain its exact features and traits. When the seeds of a cultivar are planted, it is often so that the new tea plant has reverted to its ancestral state, or has been pollinated, diverting its distinctions from the parent cultivar. The common belief is that cultivars can’t be recreated from seeds.

New seed-grown cultivar tea garden

Fumiaki however believes different. He understands the benefits of employing cultivars as their growth and outcome can be anticipated, but he also understands that the natural vitality with which a plant develops is much greater in seed-grown varietals. Fumiaki strongly adheres to the notion that roots branch out and grow shallowly when planted from cuttings, and greatly favors the idea that the plant is allowed to grow a steady base first, only to branch out secondarily. This is what he believes to be, in addition to the fertile environment of a natural mountain flank, the second most important trait of a healthy tea bush. Not only is the root allowed to dig deeper in search of a plentitude of nutrition; on the slanted mountain flank it is allowed to even penetrate further into the soil, growing a much stronger, almost indestructible base.

The best of both worlds

Understanding both the benefits of cultivars, as well as the merits of seed-propagation, Fumiaki aims at this new garden to combine the best of both worlds in the most favorable conditions. However, cultivars are generally believed to loose their unique features when planted from seed, and this is why Fumiaki chose to plant eight seeds per hole instead of just one. His intentions are to single out the one plant that resembles its parent most through the process of elimination. He may not be able to become absolute similarity between the bushes, but that wouldn’t be characteristic of his way of farming either. Since the bushes are still in their third year of growth, they are too little to tell what the outcome will be. Nevertheless, through elimination, Fumiaki has already been able to become plants that are quite similar in appearance to their original varietal.

small seed-grown cultivar bushes at Nara tea garden

An experiment as the one above is often met with a lot of criticism. Fumiaki has not received any subsidy to execute this project, nor has he been encouraged by anyone to do so. On the contrary, the persons that declared his attempt a mere waste of time and money were many, including the researcher who has brought to life several of the cultivars Fumiaki is conducting his experiment with. Fumiaki has persisted in his attempt, and he has told me that even researchers of cultivars now have come to him to look at his new tea garden.

While the tea industry is focused on producing new and interesting cultivars, and proclaims that cultivars can only be reproduced from cuttings, no one has ever attempted an experiment as thorough as Fumiaki’s approach. The conviction that cultivars can’t grow from seed was based on a blind belief, and Fumiaki may or may not be able to prove the opposite. Whatever the outcome, his efforts are what I feel is necessary not only to prove right from wrong, but also to better understand the true essence of the tea bush.

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