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Big Island tea cooperative optimistic about new ag venture

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Three acres are devoted to tea at Akatsuka Orchid Gardens in Volcano.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Interested parties laugh as chief tea officer Jason McDonald of the Hawaii Medicinal Tea and Herb Cooperative gives a tour of the various stages of tea plant growth Thursday at Akatsuka Orchid Gardens in Volcano.
  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Chief tea officer Jason McDonald of the Hawaii Medicinal Tea and Herb Cooperative gives a tour of the various stages of tea plant growth Thursday at Akatsuka Orchid Gardens in Volcano.

With the help of farmers, landowners, investors and consumers, a Big Island cooperative hopes to establish a specialty tea industry in Hawaii.

The Hawaii Medicinal Tea and Herb Cooperative, or HTC, is an unusual business — one of only a handful of consumer cooperative businesses in Hawaii and one of the few businesses that grows tea on the Big Island.

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Jason McDonald, chief tea officer for HTC, began growing tea in Mississippi when he founded The Great Mississippi Tea Company in 2012. After visiting the Big Island for a tea competition in 2015, McDonald said he “fell in love” with the island and now splits his time between Mississippi and the Big Island.

Hoping to raise a tea crop on the Big Island, McDonald enlisted the aid of Nigel Melican, one of the world’s leading tea industry consultants. Melican, with 39 years of experience assisting tea growers in 31 countries, said he was fascinated by the challenges of growing in Hawaii.

“It’s difficult to even imagine tea growing here,” Melican said. “Any fool can grow tea in the right conditions … but tea likes deep soil, and here the soil’s this thick,” he said, holding his fingers about an inch apart.

Nonetheless, tea is growing on the Big Island, and at a prodigious rate. As demonstrated at a presentation to potential investors Thursday at Akatsuka Orchid Gardens — whose vice president, Takeshi Akatsuka, is treasurer and secretary of HTC — a 3.5-acre field of tea planted in July is maturing faster than Melican said he could believe.

“Look, and be amazed,” Melican said among rows of leafy tea shrubs behind Akatsuka Gardens, some reaching almost knee-high. “When I was here last, in February, the field hadn’t even been cleared yet.”

Although there are thousands of tea plants at Akatsuka Orchid Gardens right now — the field has 5,000 plants per acre, with an additional 12,000 to 16,000 in the greenhouse alone — none have yet been made into drinkable tea. Because of that, Melican said it has yet to be determined what effect the plants’ rapid growth has had upon the flavor.

Visiting New York tea producer Jeni Dodd said some of her most preferred teas are those raised on rocky soils, so she was confident the Hawaii-grown tea will have a flavor worth tasting, although she was shocked as well by the plants’ seemingly impossible growth rate.

“If I had gone in blind, I would have said they were two, three years old,” Dodd said.

McDonald said tea is raised from biclonal seeds in greenhouses using specially composed soil before being transferred to outdoor racks that will acclimate the plants to Hawaii’s climate before finally transferring them into a field.

“We’re doing things here that are unique in the the tea world,” Melican said.

McDonald and Melican’s passion dovetailed with that of HTC president Grif Frost, a self-described “serial entrepreneur” who has helped establish more than 20 consumer cooperative businesses in Hilo.

“The cooperative model is the breakthrough here, I think,” Frost said.

The model — defined in the state by Hawaii statute 421C — allows consumers, farmers, vendors, landowners and investors to become joint owners of the enterprise by buying shares and partake in a joint share of any profit generated. Interested landowners can negotiate a lease with the HTC, investors can receive a share in 50 percent of a given venture’s total profits, and farmers can avail themselves of HTC’s processing and distribution apparatus.

HTC vice president Eric Swilley said the cooperative model was vital at the scale HTC is aiming for — the cooperative hopes to have 100 acres of tea in 10 years, at an investment cost of about $100,000 per acre.

“If it was just me doing this, I don’t think I could afford it,” Swilley said.

Currently, HTC is soliciting up to $500,000 in investments for a 5-acre tea plot in Mountain View, which, if funded, will bring the cooperative’s tea acreage up to 11.

Melican said he was confident that the price of Hawaii-grown tea would easily reach and likely exceed $100 per pound. He pointed to the rapidly growing global specialty tea market, which didn’t exist 30 years ago but is estimated to be worth $2.5 billion in 2022 by the U.S. Tea Association.

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“Our 100 acres will be a drop in the ocean compared to that,” Melican said. “But it will be the cream.”

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.