Tea is growing crop in U.S. In this Feb. 29, 2016 photograph, grower Jason McDonald, at The Great Mississippi Tea Company, near Brookhaven, Miss., shows some of the tea plants he hopes to develop into a strong sustainable cash crop. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Tea is growing crop in U.S.
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Hurricane Katrina wiped out his timber 11 years ago. That is when Jason McDonald made a decision.  He wanted to grow a different crop.  So he began to look for something less vulnerable to Mississippi's potentially powerful storms.
 
Low maintenance was also a priority.
 
"I didn't want to be a cattle farmer and chase down cattle at 3 or 4 in the morning," McDonald said.
 
A chance encounter with South Carolina tea drew him into the growing ranks of North American farmers. They grow tea for the high-priced specialty market.
 
There's money to be made. More Americans are willing to pay premium prices. But it has to be what they consider top quality. So says tea consultant Nigel Melican. He was interviewed for this story by phone. He lives in Bedford, England.
 
The specialty tea market is growing 8 to 10 percent a year. That is according to Peter F. Goggi's 2015 market review for the Tea Association of the U.S.A. Inc. Such teas are particularly attractive to millennials. They "find delight in the discovery of new and differentiated flavors, ethnic or new cultural offerings and craft selections," he wrote.
 
Melican said U.S. wages are too high to compete with overseas farmers. They grow the tea commonly found on grocery shelves.
 
For example, a 4-ounce box of 50 Lipton black tea bags can be found online for $3. Connecticut-based Bigelow Tea sells the South Carolina-grown product at $7.95. That's for a box of 12 tea bags. Each weighs less than an ounce.
 
Compared with some prices, that's peanuts.
 
Eliah Halpenny of Big Island Tea lives on the Mauna Loa volcano. It is in Hawaii. She sells her black and green teas wholesale. She gets about $42 an ounce. Her online retail prices work out to more than $75 an ounce.
 
Light of Day Organic Teas is in Traverse City, Michigan. There, plastic-covered "hoop houses" shelter tea plants eight months of the year. The business sells its homegrown white tea for $256 a pound. It costs $32 for a 1.5-ounce tin. It takes 70,000 hand-picked leaf buds to make a pound of white tea. The figures are according to owner Angela Macke.
 
"I don't recommend it to anyone as a commercial crop. You've got to love it," Macke said in a phone interview.
 
About 60 U.S. farms, with only a handful created before 2000, are growing tea. This is according to Tygh Waters. He is president of the U.S. League of Tea Growers. Water also is founder of Piedmont Tea Co. The company is in Athens, Georgia. Tea is grown in at least 15 states and the Canadian province of British Columbia. Outside of Hawaii, it generally takes about five years for plants to grow big enough to survive repeated harvests, Walters said.
 
A tea bag helped decide McDonald's future. This was after the 2005 hurricane wiped out 75 percent of the pine trees on his farm. He owns nearly 5,000 acres near Tylertown. That's about 40 miles from what is now his Great Mississippi Tea Company. It is in Brookhaven, Mississippi.
 
On a visit to South Carolina, he was served a tea called American Classic. The message on the teabag's envelope intrigued him.  That's because this tea was homegrown.
 
He went to the nation's oldest working tea farm. It is Charleston Tea Plantation. It was started by Lipton in 1963.  The company used plants that had grown wild on a defunct farm in Summerville, South Carolina. There, McDonald learned that tea comes from Camellia sinensis. And that tea needs high heat, acidic soil, ample rainfall and humidity. Mississippi State University researchers helped him determine what varieties might be best for Mississippi.
 
After an unusually cold winter killed off nearly an entire year's stock in Mississippi, McDonald began buying seeds from overseas. He got seeds from places such as Nepal and Kenya. Now he wants to cross cold-hardy and heat-tolerant plants. He'd like to produce a hybrid that will thrive in Mississippi.
 
He's also planted seeds from a Hattiesburg woman. Her name is Penny. She gave him two huge plants. In return, she wanted him to name some of their offspring after her. He says those seedlings are growing much faster than other varieties. Hoping for a copper-hued tea, McDonald named them "A Penny's Worth of Copper."

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