Organic tea planters in China sow seeds of a more sustainable future

Mr Fang Guoqiang (right), president of Xin'anyuan Organic Tea Development, with a grower.
Mr Fang Guoqiang (right), president of Huangshan Xin'anyuan Organic Tea Development, with a grower. PHOTO: CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

An agricultural cooperative with 2,000ha of tea gardens along the Xin'an River exports organic tea to the US, Germany, Britain and France

(CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) Perched at the source of the Xin'an River, one of China's least-polluted waterways, Youlong village boasts the perfect environment for a tea garden.

The 1,200-year-old village in Huangshan city's Xiuning county in Anhui province - long known for its lush scenery - is a centre for the cultivation of organic tea.

One of China's first organic tea planters, Mr Fang Guoqiang, president of Huangshan Xin'anyuan Organic Tea Development, has played a key role in the village's transformation over the past 20 years.

He made his fortune cutting and selling wood in Xiuning. Back in 1985, he could earn up to 36,000 yuan (S$7,350) a week at a time when most villagers still lived a hand-to-mouth existence.

The turning point came in 1988, when some wealthy businessmen offered a considerable sum of money for 16 ancient Masson pines in Youlong. The village's party chief at the time, Mr Zhang Jinzong, fought to protect the trees. The old man's resolve awakened Mr Fang's environmental awareness and he started thinking more about planting than cutting.

Mr Zhang's firm stance also affected the villagers, who started to see a link between their poverty and the fact that they were always taking from nature and seldom giving anything back.

Mr Fang made friends with an international trader, Mr Li Shengfu, who told him that the village environment was perfect for producing high-quality tea. 

In 1997, Mr Fang founded his company, which focuses on organic tea planting and processing. He organised local farmers to plant the tea, providing them with technological guidance and subsidies.

"At first, no tea gardens were qualified for organic tea. I spent a lot of time and energy persuading the farmers not to use pesticides or chemical fertilisers and promised that we would pay higher prices to buy their yields if they followed strict planting rules," he said.

But his pleas fell on deaf ears. Despite having free organic fertilisers he provided, the farmers still applied chemical fertilisers to boost output, thinking that Mr Fang could not tell the difference.

"I was disappointed. But common sense told me it would take time to change their entrenched planting methods. So I continued to lobby them," he said.

Mr Li helped him persuade the farmers to abandon chemical fertilisers and selected some residents as a small inspection team armed with a gong and a drum. If the team found a farmer applying chemical fertiliser or pesticide, they would beat the gong and strike the drum to inform the neighbourhood.

The biggest change came with the harvest season, when the farmers found that the price of fresh organic tea was three times that of non-organic tea, and that its quality could be discerned easily with a test.

The farmers' efforts paid off. In 2006, the average per capita annual income of organic tea planters in Youlong hit 5,000 yuan, double the provincial average.

They then looked to Mr Fang to help them to explore new commercial opportunities. He did not let them down.

He began selling Youlong organic tea overseas and began to seek ways to benefit more farmers beyond the village.

He set up an agricultural cooperative that has 2,000ha of tea gardens along the Xin'an River, of which more than one-fifth meet the organic agricultural standards of the United States and the European Union, and have won certifications that qualify their crops for those markets.

In 2010, a buyer from Germany visited the tea gardens and was so impressed by the farmers' rigorous organic planting and the well-preserved natural conditions that he offered them 100,000 euros (S$160,600) a year to encourage them to maintain their high standards.

Last year, Mr Fang's cooperative exported organic tea worth US$6 million (S$8.15 million) to the US, Germany, Britain and France.

In 2012, the government initiated an ecological preservation campaign. Subsidies are provided to encourage farmers to replace chemical fertilisers with organic ones. The subsidy covers almost one-third of the cooperative's expenditure on organic fertilisers.

The government's support has buoyed his confidence in the future of the organic tea business. He plans to ensure that all 2,000ha of tea gardens meet the requirements of Western markets within 10 years.