Thursday, May 31, 2012

Could Tea Be Grown Commercially In Puerto Rico? Probably, But Not As A Major Crop Like Coffee

In the United States, tea is grown commercially in a handful of locations, including Hawaii, South Carolina, Washington State, and Alabama. These operations cannot compete with other countries for producing tea as a bulk commodity, but several commercial operations persist, probably in large part due to the novelty factor of teas produced in unusual regions. RateTea's page on The United States as a tea producing region has more information on these locations, and the relationship between the climate in various parts of the US and the feasibility of growing tea there.

Prior to visiting Puerto Rico, I never thought much about the possibility of growing tea in this region. Tea is grown commercially in Latin America, in Guatemala; I recently tried tea from Guatemala, Los Andes from Shanti Tea, which was good, and interesting, although it was CTC tea and not among the best black teas I have tried.

Also, prior to visiting, I did not realize how mountainous Puerto Rico was. Look at this photo which I took from a car while driving across the island:

The highest point on the island is 4390 feet, or 1338 meters, considerably taller than the highest point in my "mountainous" home state of Pennsylvania. Puerto Rico, incidentally, mostly uses the metric system, using liters, kilometers, and Celsius, but, in an odd reference to the US way of doing things, displays their speed limit signs in miles per hour.

Coffee in Puerto Rico:

Puerto Rico currently grows a substantial amount of coffee commercially; the coffee is a product of pride among the locals. A lot of people talked about it, and I saw it for sale many places on the island (in contrast to the states, where I infrequently see Puerto Rican coffee for sale). Puerto Rico also grows a substantial amount of shade-grown coffee, and interestingly, many of the birds in Puerto Rico rely on shade-grown coffee plantations as habitat.

The above field guide, Birds of the West Indies, which I used in Puerto Rico, and which I'd recommend as the best compact field guide to the region that I was able to find, explicitly mentions shade coffee plantations as a habitat of a number of bird species. Shade coffee plantations, although nowhere near as rich a habitat as natural rainforest, provide a rainforest-like habitat which can be valuable for bird species whose natural habitat has been mostly destroyed by humans.

The climate in Puerto Rico:

Puerto Rico's climate is tropical with seasonal rainfall, and moderate variability in climate from one region to another. The southwest of the island is semi-arid, supporting tropical dry forest; the higher altitudes support tropical rainforest, including El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S., and part of the national forest system. Much of the region has what would be considered a tropical monsoon climate. Unlike South and Southeast Asia, the monsoon pattern is weaker and has two distinct peaks, with a brief wet season in May, followed by a brief dry season, and then a longer, wetter season Aug-Nov. Other parts of the island have less variability in rainfall.

The following map, from the National Weather Service, shows how the average precipitation for Puerto Rico varies in different regions:

To see what effect this difference in rainfall has on vegetation, look at this photo from El Yunque, which is located around that bright purple spot of high rainfall on the map; in spite of the fact that it did not rain at all when we visited the rainforest, there was water everywhere, and lush, dense vegetation:

Contrast this with the tropical dry forest, Guanica State Forest, which was full of agave, cacti, and sparse tree cover, with short trees letting a lot of light through:

Although some of Puerto Rico is probably too dry to grow the tea plant, I suspect that there would be substantial areas in the mountainous interior of the island, with cooler temperatures and higher rainfall, where it would grow well. I also imagine that the asymmetrical bimodal precipitation pattern, with short and long wet seasons, could result in unique tasting teas, with harvests from different times of year having different qualities of flavor and aroma.

Economically, tea probably would not compete favorably with coffee, which fetches a much higher price per acre of production in most of Latin America, but an artisan tea operation, growing unique, high-quality tea, and appealing to an audience of tea enthusiasts willing to pay a premium for something different, might be able to survive. Another model, using tourism, perhaps eco-tourism, to supplement the income of the tea operation, might also make it possible for a tea garden to support itself in a region where the economics don't seem to line up; the Los Andes tea garden doubles as a nature preserve and offers eco-tourism opportunities, and the Charleston Tea Plantation in South Carolina, owned by Bigelow, also offers tours and various special events.

What do you think?

Is this just a crazy idea, or do you think a commercial tea operation in Puerto Rico could be a worthwhile undertaking?


  1. Replies
    1. Haha...I don't think so, at least, not right now. If I spoke more fluent Spanish and lived in Puerto Rico for a number of years, maybe.

      It's the kind of thing that, if I were going to do it, I'd want to experiment with growing the tea plant there, as a hobby, first, for a few years, and I'd probably also want to travel to various parts of the world and learn first-hand about tea production. Then I'd experiment.

      If I was able to produce awesome-tasting tea on my own, then I'd start considering doing it as a serious business venture, perhaps teaming up with others to make it happen. If the tea just didn't grow well or if I couldn't get it to taste good, then I would probably give up. It's the type of thing that I think would only be worth doing if you could produce awesome-tasting tea...and this process would take a number of years, I think.