(* Before the start, quick reports - (1) our earliest 2012 green tea has arrived; (2) 2012 harvests of Long Jing and quite a few other green teas are expected to be 5-15 days later than last year.)
China's political system is highly centralized. Sometimes the government is like the patriarch of a clan. It issues orders without giving people options of "yes" or "no". The system has a lot of problems, but people don't have an option to choose the system either. But sometimes it gets things done fast - this makes "bad" worse but makes good things happen sometimes. For example, in the "Olympic year" (2008), the government suddenly issued an order that all privately owned cars in Beijing could only run on the street half of the days each month, either even number days, or odd number days, depending on the last digit of the license plate number. Even today, there is a day during each week that a car can't run on the street of Beijing. To be honest, I'm quite happy about it. But is it fair? Probably not, considering the government initiated the expansion of automobile industry and automobile sales to begin with.
In the same year, for the same reason (preparing a better environment for the Olympics), the government issued an order that no plastic bags should be given for free in any supermarkets or groceries nationwide. Suddenly, most people were forced into the life style of carrying fabric bags to shopping. There must be complaints. But surprisingly I didn't hear much complaint. I guess it's because this was just the life style people had merely 20 years ago, and after all, it was not that hard to go back to it. This is a typical non-democratic decision, but at least this one was not at the cost of anybody - or anybody I would care for :-p Till now, I still think this is one of the best things Olympics has brought to China. By the way, many of you have probably seen the tote in the photo on the left. It's a product of the above-mentioned time period :-D
The photo on the left is from 家住龙井村. The paper is an official document from the village council (the lowest level of government office in rural China) to the villagers. It emphasizes the policies of "no artificial fertilizer, no pesticide before the end of spring harvest season". The document also points out that random inspection will be carried out to enforce these policies, and any violation will cause the farmer to be punished (it doesn't mention how) and lose all future subsidies for tea cultivation. The subsidies, according to my friend who lives in Long Jing village, basically include all costs of winter soybean paddy fertilization and all costs of pesticide. These two expenses are largest expenses of Long Jing cultivation next to labor costs. So nobody wants to risk losing the subsidies. Besides, the document also mentions that the policies are made to maintain a good reputation of West Lake Long Jing, and to maximize individual economic benefits of the villagers.
Obvious ecological benefits aside, the policy of "no artificial fertilizer" before spring harvest is quite important to the quality of Long Jing and nearly all tea. Supposedly the best time of fertilization is winter, when the tea trees "take a rest". And the best fertilizers are the traditional ones, such as those made with soybean debris used in Long Jing Village. During the spring season, it's important to let the tea trees take their time to grow, and any accelerated growth caused by artificial fertilizers. Since the price of Long Jing changes by the date of harvest, there is potential monetary incentive to have the tea growth artificially encouraged. Therefore, strict administration is necessary.
The rationale of "no pesticide before spring harvest" is quite obvious too. It should be practiced by all farmers, and as far as I know, a lot of farmers who care about their tea quality and their reputation would strictly follow this rule.
Quite a few tea drinkers have asked this question, is there organic Long Jing cultivation in Hangzhou, the central producing region of Long Jing? I can't say "no" because I don't have knowledge of all plantations. But in general, pesticide is commonly used in summer and early autumn throughout the region. In China, organic pesticides are not an industry yet, and the research of organic pesticides is quite challenging. Internationally, there has been some research on organic pesticides, but not much has focused on tea cultivation. While there isn't yet option of organic pesticide, cultivation of Long Jing can hardly be free of non-organic pesticides.
The photos showed on the left were taken by another friend of mine who also lives in the Lion Peak (Shi Feng) region of Hangzhou. One day in the past February, this guy was wandering around the Lion Peak Mountain, and found a few small pieces of lands with tea bushes that suffered severely from bug bites. From the bites on the older leaves, he could tell this happened in last summer or autumn, and that's what tea bushes would typically look like when there is nothing to fight against the pests. Some bushes seemed completely dead. He had no clue why these tea bushes weren't received pesticide last year. It looks like an abandoned field. Probably something happened to the owner and s/he stopped taking care of the fields.
These photos somewhat give us an idea about how hard organic cultivation could be. It requires a lot of fundamental scientific research in large scale, preferably sponsored by the government and conducted by authoritative organizations such as universities and research institutes. Before there is enough national investment on research, and before there are many scientists who actively participates in studies of organic cultivation, I wouldn't blame the farmers for not practicing completely organic cultivation.
Although the Long Jing farmers can't give up non-organic pesticides yet, there are indeed a lot of indigenous strategies to reduce the use of pesticides. In Long Jing Village, as well as a lot of other tea producing areas, it's common that tea farmer families raise chicken and let the chicken range in the tea fields. Birds, including chicken, are very efficient in eliminating bug of certain size. Usually, the real headache is from some smaller bugs that don't fit in the "diet" of birds. In Long Jing Village, the use of pesticides is not only strictly controlled within the range of milder types and within time periods far off the harvest season, there is also the policy that the entire village should have simultaneous application of pesticides. Other villages in the region have the same policy for their tea cultivation. It has turned out that simultaneous application can make pest control more efficient and therefore it's also the most economic use of pesticides. In addition, due to the high market price of Long Jing, many Long Jing farmers can afford hiring migrating workers to manually care for the tea fields, and therefore reduce the needs of pesticides.
A very important characteristic of Chinese tea production is that most of the best teas are from small scale production carried out by individual families or small work units (such as village co-ops). However, even when high end Long Jing is dominated by family production, no family is an island entire of itself. Sustainable agricultural practice benefits from collective actions, as well as advocates within the community.
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