INTEREST PIECE: INVESTIGATING UK TEA GROWTH POTENTIAL
By Catherine Rouse
University of Southampton
When you think about tea production, India, China and maybe Africa spring to mind, but what about the UK?
My name is Catherine and I am currently completing my MSc in Applied GIS and Remote Sensing at the University of Southampton. As part of the final semester we are required to undertake a 20,000 word research project, which sounds like a rather daunting task. Yet, the key is to choose a topic that is of interest to yourself and a wider community, and tea definitely hits that brief.
A few months ago Connie and Patrick, two of my course mates, visited Assam as part of a UKIERI project. They collected a variety of data on the locations of shade trees and soil properties within a number of tea plantations for their respective projects. Their post ‘Shade, food and an egg’s lost luggage!’ details a joint experience around Assam and provides additional detail on each of their projects, so definitely take a look. My project moves away from India and instead focuses on tea growth within parts of the UK. This may seem a bit strange as yes, we Brits love to drink a good cup of tea and are one of the biggest tea drinking nations out there, yet when it comes to home grown tea we are pretty limited in awareness, knowledge and experience. Tea requires very specific environmental conditions to grow, and as such the potential for growth (particularly under future climate change) can be modelled. Specifically, my project looks at the climatic, topographic and soil conditions found within the UK and whether, when combined, suitable areas for growing tea can be highlighted through using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and an ecological habitat suitability model. Unfortunately this means I did not get to join Connie and Patrick on their adventure to India, however I did get to go to Cornwall to find more out about existing English tea production, and lucky for me the weather was beautiful.
First stop was the Eden project, located just outside St Austell. Whilst visiting I bumped into one of the gardeners who manages the tea section. Unfortunately they are really struggling with keeping the soil pH at optimum growing conditions, which for tea is around 4.5-5, and attempts to lower the pH through various techniques including fertiliser has led to the presence of the Phytophthora pathogen. So sadly, many plants have had to be removed. The remaining tea plants appeared rather unhealthy and yellow, despite daily irrigation and ‘suitable’ climatic conditions. Tea growth at Eden made me aware of some of the difficulties associated with growing tea and the extreme practices required in order to ensure successful growth. However, my second destination in Cornwall led me to one of the only successful British tea plantations, Tregothnan, where there were many healthy looking tea plants!
Tregothnan estate is located near Truro, Cornwall and is one of the only commercial tea plantations to supply English-grown tea to British supermarkets (blended), as well as high-end London stores such as Fortnum and Mason at a premium. Planting first began in 1999 and after 6 years the first plants were fully established and ready for harvest. Currently tea is grown in around 40 acres of the 6,000 acre estate, although there appear to be plans to extend this to 150 acres over the coming years. Whilst we were there we observed innovative field technology which could contribute to future cultivation; trials for mechanised planting which is currently not undertaken anywhere else in the world. We also had a tour around the estate and the incredible gardens which display a range of rare plants taken from all over the world, on a par with Kew Gardens!
We also got to taste some of this English tea and take some produce home. Ellie was particularly happy as she procured a tea plant to grow at home. Next week I will be attending the Ethical Tea Partnership annual meeting where I will have an opportunity to engage with multiple tea stakeholders and get further ideas for my research, and perhaps kick-start a career in tea!