While vacationing, I took advantage of opportunities to interview inn and restaurant owners; chefs; and the owner of the only tea plantation in America. This week I share my interview with the owner of America’s only tea plantation.
America’s soil is not typically appropriate for tea growing. Since 1987, Bill Hall, in partnership with Bigelow Teas, has been successfully growing tea on Wadmalaw Island, in the Low Country of South Carolina. Charleston Tea Plantation is the home of American Classic Tea. The short journey from Charleston to the plantation is charming. The long winding road into the plantation is flat, leading to hundreds of tea bush, carpeted acres.
Upon my arrival, I took a video tour of the tea making process, while looking through the windows of the production facility. Through the windows, I could see the large equipment used in the process. April is prime time to see real-time production. Next, came the trolley tour of the plantation. An engaging tour guide and a recording of Bill accompanied us through the vast acreage of tea bushes and by occasional ponds used for irrigation. Some tea bushes were showing deadened areas from getting too much water last year. Just like I enjoy tea at just the right temperature, tea bushes enjoy just the right amount of sun, shade, and water. With the use of a pipe network and water from onsite ponds, an irrigation system regulates how much water the bushes receive between Mother Nature’s applications. The bushes provide shade for deer. According to Bill, this isn’t a problem because deer are not fond of tea flowers or leaves.
This is the largest oak tree on the plantation and is often used as a backdrop for weddings and wedding photos. I visited early in the spring season but through the summer this tree will be dripping with foliage and the lucky couple will be surrounded by acreage of breathtaking views of tea plants.
The drive into the plantation is captivatingly charming as you traverse the long, curving drive leading you and your guests to your wedding destination. Honestly, I think this would be lovely in the spring as well, before the foliage with twinkling lights and bountiful arrangements of flowers. At any time of year, you can let your imagination have its way and be provided with an intriguing and inspiring plantation setting.
Following my tour, I asked if I could interview Bill. I had seen him earlier transferring plants from the computerized greenhouse to outside to expose them to a natural environment before planting. He is intent on expanding a few acres and replacing bushes that were drowned in the previous season. I was pleasantly surprised that the guide went out of his way to try and connect me. Although, the final connection was made through a director in the gift store who rang him on his phone and he graciously agreed to come down from his home and chat with me.
With his broad smile and long gray hair and beard, I found Bill to be easy mannered. He’s a horticulturist and third generation tea master with a four-year formal training and apprenticeship in London, England. He founded the plantation as an experiment. He oversees production and development and employs four people on the plantation. Because human labor is expensive, he instead uses “The Green Giant” to harvest the top three inches of leaves on the bushes. The only one of its kind, it’s made from parts harvested from tobacco and cotton harvesters. Harvesting is every three weeks from April to October. To maintain a smooth, mellow taste, leaves are processed within a week. The tea is not organic. People complained of the smell of organic manure, so instead, Bill uses granular nitrogen fertilizer. There is no need for herbicides, insecticides, or fungicides.
In regard to labor, with a big grin, with a small staff, Bill said he has no labor issues. I asked if he knows about human trafficking issues connected to general tea production, as I’m aware it is a concern in some countries. He was unaware of any issues and related a situation in Argentina where Rainforest Alliance concluded workers needed toilet facilities and living arrangements closer to town. Bill said workers didn’t want it because relieving yourself in a hole you’ve dug is not smelly like a toilet and they didn’t want to live in town because it was dangerous. We had an engaged chat about the importance of understanding the culture of a community before changing it, and being sure considered cultural changes are appropriate.
During my tour, my guide emphasized I was observing “sleeping” plants, which would soon wake up to grow fresh leaves. Later, I mentioned this remark to Bill and commented that really, they are not sleeping. Much of the work of the bushes is being done in the ground over the course of the winter and could hardly be called sleeping. It was here that we shared a bond of understanding, as his eyes lit up and he voiced agreement. Overall, it was clear through the interview that Bill Hall becomes engagingly alive when sharing knowledge of the Camellia Sinensis plant; the soil; and resident wildlife.
I would have enjoyed learning more about Bill Hall’s business practices as he balances making a profit with environmental concerns. I wouldn’t regard him as a strict environmentalist, but rather one that selectively uses environmentally friendly means. Bill knows tea and how to use the land to grow a tea with a taste which resonates with many tea lovers.