Every April and May, tea farmers in Wuyishan harvest and process black tea. The rest of the year is spent managing their tea plantations. During my visit to Wuyishan in mid-September, 2022, I saw many farmers pulling weeds from their fields, particularly those producing organic tea.
Farmers said this generations-old tradition in Wuyishan is called “digging for gold in early autumn and digging for silver in late autumn,” as early autumn is the ideal time for weeding and tea tree roots grow fastest in winter.
Though labor intensive, it greatly reduces the need for chemical fertilizers. The pulled weeds are left in the fields to dry in the sun, then decay in the rain and fertilize tea plants. According to Fang Zhou, deputy general manager of Wuyishan Yongsheng Tea, an organic tea company in Xingcun Town inside the park, weeding by hand is a natural form of pest control, as it exposes insect eggs under the soil to sunlight, which destroys them.
Tongmu grows a variety of species, many of which are local hybrids. “The diversity also makes them resilient to harsh climate conditions, or outbreaks of diseases or pests,” Liang Junde said.
According to Luo Hui, pests have been minimal in Tongmu’s long history of tea planting. “I think it’s because the sufficiency and diversity of plants in the forests, which provide habitats for birds, counterbalance the insects,” he said. “But on large-scale tea plantations outside the village, the situation is not as ideal, and most farmers have to resort to pesticides as far as I know.”
Many tea plantations in the park have adopted organic farming methods in recent years. Among them is Wuyishan Yongsheng Tea, which occupies 5,000 mu (3.33 square kilometers).
On some organic tea farms, there is rapeseed and Chinese milkvetch planted among the tea rows to help nitrate the soil. The park’s management bureau invested millions of yuan to transition farms to organic methods by providing plants that aid nitrogen fixation. They supplied trees like Chinese yew, cherry, gingko and sweet osmanthus to increase biodiversity and attract birds, which feed on unwanted insects.
“I remember we had widespread outbreaks of weevils and tea moths in the early 2000s, both disastrous for tea plants, ” Fang Zhou told NewsChina. While Fang said he has noticed more insect species on his tea plantation than previously, their numbers are too low to cause damage. “When we stopped using pesticides and allowed the natural revival of flora and fauna diversity, nature resumed its balance and surprised us by allowing our tea to grow in a much healthier environment,” Fang said.
Fang spots more birds on his farm nowadays, including the rare red-billed blue magpie with its beautiful light-blue feathers. “A few days ago, I saw an eagle hovering low over our tea farm, and then I learned there was a king cobra around,” Fang said.
While organic farming methods increased expenses in the first few years due to higher labor costs, farmers saved on pesticides in the long run. Also, the better quality yields fetch higher prices. “We calculated that so far, profits per mu have increased by 2,000 to 3,000 yuan (US$275-413),” Fang Zhou with Wuyishan Yongsheng Tea said.
Yang Wenchun, owner of mid-sized organic tea farm Shouxi Rock Tea in Xingcun Town, reports similar gains.
Local farmers at first resisted the park’s imposed rules, especially when illegally expanded tea farms were shut down and reforested. However, the overall environment and water and soil resources have significantly improved, he said. “Hares and pheasants can be seen in our neighborhood, and eagles often circle above our tea farms. Also, more local tea farmers are adopting organic farming such as planting soybean and rapeseed,” Yang said. “My tea yields are 30 percent higher per mu.”
“This year, Fujian has received much less rain than average because of La Niña. In many other places, tea plants died due to drought. But inside the park, with better vegetation to conserve water resources, most tea plants have managed to survive,” Yang said.
Zhou Zhenghua with the park’s management bureau said that communities inside Wuyishan National Park generally earn higher incomes than those around it. “The surrounding mountains and rivers have nourished the forests, so prices for fresh tea leaves from inside the national park are at least two or three times higher than from places nearby.”
There are 8,000 mu (5.33 square kilometers) of tea farms in Tongmu, where nearly all of its 430 households work in the tea industry. In 2017, per capita income of Tongmu villagers reached 20,810 yuan (US$2,870), and in 2020 per capita income was 24,000 yuan (US$3,310). Average household incomes earned from making and selling black tea can reach 200,000 yuan (US$27,580) per year, with some big brands raking in millions.
Increased quality and a growing market are behind the changes, Fang Zhou said. “When China’s economy was weaker, tea was a subsidiary agricultural product. As living standards improved and Chinese people’s spiritual pursuits broadened, tea drinking came to embody an artistic sensibility and a highbrow lifestyle. The value of tea has enhanced despite the cost increases, so our profit margins have improved a lot.”
Xu Shanwei said that educating local communities about the benefits of environmental protection was essential to them forgoing immediate profits for sustainability. “There is a difference between self-motivated and compulsory protection,” Xu said.