Mar 18, 2012

Long Jing Village's cultivation policies

(* 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 cultivation policies of Long Jing Village is another example of top-down policy. But what distinguishes them from many other government policies is probably that at the local level, it's well understood that everybody's economic benefits rely on it.

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. 


William said...

Thanks for this very interesting article.

I am quite surprised that they do not manage to get rid of pesticides, organic tea farming is possible and developing in Yunnan and Darjeeling for example.

How is the biodiversity in the long Jing tea gardens? Can we find a lot of species? Do the insects have other alternatives than tea bushes to survive?


Gingko said...

Hi William, Thanks for your comments! Although organic tea farming is possible, it's very hard and require a lot of social cooperation and should be backed up by hard-core research. Organic cultivation has been initiated in Zhejiang province, but not in the famous tea producing regions yet. And overall, I imagine organic tea farming is much harder in Zhejiang than Yunnan considering the cultivar differences and cultivation methods. Even within Yunnan, I imagine organic cultivation of plantation tea bushes would be much harder than organic maintenance of arbor tree tea, and it's harder for plantation with high density than for those with low density.

Lion Peak Mountain region has fairly good ecosystem and vegetation coverage. However, although it's still rural and wild, it's much more "metropolitan" than Yunnan :-D

I don't know much about pests of tea. But according to some articles, there are several dozen types in Hangzhou tea plantations. Some of them seem to specialize on tea.

Alex Zorach said...

What does it mean to say that "organic tea cultivation is hard"? Organic cultivation of anything is only hard if you are wanting your agricultural system to behave like an industrial system, not an ecological system.

Tea was grown in China for hundreds of years before the invention of modern chemistry and synthetic pesticides.

I don't know as much about how things are done in China, but I know a fair amount about organic farming here in the U.S., and I know that the problems a farmer in the U.S. has with pests are largely a function of how they farm. If you farm with a monoculture of cloned cultivars, you open yourself up to pests and disease. The larger the scale of farming, the bigger the problem with pests and disease. If you have a very small, diversified operation, you almost never have any problems with pests, even when growing delicate, pest-susceptible plants outside their ideal range. So, for example, the hybrid corn, planted in monocultures, grown throughout most of the midwestern US, requires heavy pesticide use. Open-pollinated corn grown in smaller plots does not require any pesticides at all.

I think it's good that the Chinese government is doing some things to protect the environment, but I'd like to see them go farther in terms of fully embracing ecological principles. The fundamental problem, as I see it, is the policy of maximizing economic growth. If this is the policy of the government, then eventually, the environment will be ruined, no matter what technologies or environmental practices are put in place. The only long-term solution is to curb growth. All discussion of organics is a moot point if we don't embrace a different economic philosophy.

At least that's how I feel about things.

Gingko said...

I think it's important to acknowledge "organic cultivation is hard". It's not like that "it's so easy yet farmers don't want to do it because they are against it or don't want to work for it."

To acknowledge organic cultivation is hard means government, scientists, and many other aspects of the society should take the responsibility and do their share, instead of thinking it could be done by just the farmer communities.

"Tea was grown in China for hundreds of years before the invention of modern chemistry and synthetic pesticides." That's true, but at much lower density and at a greater cost (compared with many other things at the same time period) and the at the cost of most farmers living in poverty. Today, if the cultivation density is cut into 1/10 or even in half, organic cultivation of many things would be much easier. But reducing cultivation density is one of the hardest part. It will mean increase of price - for tea it's not even the most hard, as it's not an essential food source. But would tea farmers give up cultivation density (which means many of them should switch to another job), and would consumers pay twice the price for the products, that's not my say, but I doubt they would.

I agree curbing growth is the key. But that's another hardest part. It's cruel to not allow people to rear more kids (like the one-child policy in China which did effectively curb growth). It's impossible to not allow some regions to develop economics and let them stay in the 19th century life style that is highly appreciated by artists and travelers but not as much by local people (a lot of places in Yunnan are typical examples). Then we have to face the problem of consumption, and we know many of those on top 1% of consumption don't want to curb their consumptions, and they even have the power to shape the political structures that benefits them at the cost of the society.

So a lot of things should be done, but we have to face the fact that they are not easy at all.

Anonymous said...

I'm not certain why this webpage doesn't recognize me as, Joe, So I choose to respond anonymously.

Great discussion. I wish I had more time to write a response, but I wanted to at least step out here and let you know, Gingko, I really appreciate all of what you shared here (including the pictures). I appreciate the others respondents perspectives as well. I hope to have more time later to give my own perspective.

Gingko said...

Hi Joe, I'm glad to see you here! Do write more when you have time!

William said...

Thanks for your replies, indeed, organic farming is a tricky question. If there is no strong pressure from the consumer side, there is no reason for the producers to invest money and take risks to convert a plantation to organic.

We should also remember that non organic does not necessarily mean intensive. In Yunnan, a lot of plantations are not organic, but they still give good tea because they are well managed and not over-harvested.

Now, the day consumer will look really bad upon non organic tea, i'm sure the producers will quickly find solutions to adapt.

Anonymous said...

It is troubling that a lot of Chinese tea can not meet the European Union pesticide standards.

Gingko said...

About the statement "a lot of Chinese tea can not meet the European Union pesticide standards", I think it really depends on the definition of "a lot" - compared to which other countries and which other food categories. But indeed pesticide residue should always be a concern and should be inspected strictly on tea.

For the fine tea consumers of European Union, I don't think pesticide is the biggest problem. A bigger problem is majority of European importers only import cheap and low quality teas - some of these teas were used for teabags, and some end up in the market with even much higher prices than their import prices. The high price of low quality tea will direct harm the market of high quality tea. Low quality teas are overall more exposed to pesticides. But many of the low quality teas are of no good even if they are free of pesticide problems.