Written by Felicity
Why we’ve been buying their tea for the past five years
Emily and Shenteng Chen are farmers on Ali Shan, one of Taiwan’s most famous oolong tea regions. JING first met them five years ago, when we were looking for organic producers. The lush, mountainous island of Taiwan produces some of the very best teas of anywhere but pesticides are widely used in agriculture and, as a result, the country’s teas have had problems meeting EU regulation and it is very hard to find organic teas. At their Chenjia garden, Shenteng and Emily are doing something different, they converted to organic practices and luckily for us, it is not only helping them and the environment to thrive, the resulting tea is one of the purest expressions of Ali Shan we’ve come across. It is intensely floral and fruity, with characteristic milkiness – it refreshes and it quenches. Ever since, we’ve been fortunate to secure Chenjia’s autumn crop every year as our Ali Shan.
To find out how they so consistently produce such good tea, I spoke to them just as they finished this year’s first spring crop…
It’s a good time to catch them. They’re going to be putting their feet up for the next few weeks, says Emily. It might be a joke but Shenteng confirms there’s some truth in it: because they practise organic agriculture, they will only need to be in their garden for one or two days; their neighbours, meanwhile, will be in their gardens every day, spraying pesticides and maintaining their tea bushes, worrying about what the season will bring.
That approach is what first drew us to Chenjia. We know that organic agriculture is better for the environment, for the producers who avoid exposure to harmful chemicals, and for consumers who don’t have to drink any residues. That’s why sourcing from organic producers is fundamental to our head of tea, Tom’s, sourcing strategy.
Despite the promise of that win-win-win, the Chens are the only tea farmers in Ali Shan working in this way. As Shenteng explains, the pesticides that are used prolifically across Taiwan are appealing because they promise higher yields – and right now, yields are a problem for many farmers. Locals believe climate change is causing more extreme weather patterns that have made yields less predictable: droughts can delay leaf growth and thus picking; or too much rain means picking can’t be done at all.
“Eight years ago, I was an estate agent in the city. Now tea has become my life again”
Shenteng grew up on the Chenjia garden but has not always lived here. Excited by the prospect of a modern life – and, by his own admission, keen to avoid the back-breaking work of a farmer – he headed to the city with all of his contemporaries. He only returned to the family home unexpectedly, needing to recover from a broken arm after a road accident.
During this convalescence, Shenteng watched his ageing parents struggling with the physical work of managing a tea garden. His parents worked in the garden every day, maintaining the tea bushes by spraying pesticides to get rid of pests and weeds, or adding fertiliser to encourage the bushes to grow again after being sprayed.
Newly married to Emily, who describes herself as a “big-city girl” from Taichung, Shenteng worked with her to find a way to help his parents.
“My parents were shocked and angry at our decision – worried about the economic problems it would cause us”
Around that time, the health and environmental impacts of chemical pesticides were becoming more widely reported. While Emily wanted the healthiest possible environment for the first child they were now expecting, Shenteng still didn’t want them both to simply take on all of his parents’ burden. With what might have been construed by local farmers as a city ideology, Emily and Shenteng presented their plan to his parents: called ‘Good Quality, Good for the Environment, Good for Health’, it was a proposal to turn Chenjia organic.
“If you believe something is right, you can always find a way. If you don’t know something, google it!”
At first, his parents were right to be concerned by the plan. When Chenjia went organic, yield dropped 30%.
The majority of Taiwanese tea is sold domestically. Although it is growing, demand for organic there is still relatively low, so the prices that organic tea can fetch do not outweigh the loss in yield. This is one of the biggest challenges around getting more farmers to convert – the financial return on investment is not guaranteed.
With everyone telling him to switch back, Shenteng says it was strange to stand back and watch as “weeds” and other plants grew up around the garden. Because no one was around to show him how best to manage the conversion, Shenteng laughs as he recalls how reliant he was on the internet for information.
“Time is the greatest healer – we love the eagles, snakes and fireflies that have returned to our garden”
Over the past eight years, Chenjia’s bushes have become self-reliant in a way that bushes in their neighbours’ gardens are not. According to Shenteng, last summer when temperatures in their neighbours’ gardens were 36ºC, the bushes in Chenjia were able to regulate themselves better and maintain a core temperature of 26ºC – a much more stable temperature for growing leaves and producing the plant compounds that deliver the best flavours in the tea.
Unfortunately, many tea farmers are stuck in a vicious circle of reliance on pesticides, which limits the resilience of tea bushes to extreme weather patterns, which means more intervention is needed. Many do not know how to get out of this cycle.
“If we teach our team to run a tea business, we believe we can give them independence and this will help the industry to modernise.”
Seeing the issues their neighbours face in breaking the vicious circle of chemical agriculture, Shenteng and Emily want to teach those coming into the industry about the benefits of working organically. They also want to overcome the entrenched local perception – which Shenteng once shared – that tea farming is back-breaking work with limited prospects. This is why they try to act as mentors to their employees.
Chenjia employs 10 people, who assist with the production every year. Five of the team are young people who work across all aspects of the business from production to garden management through to sales. Shenteng and Emily believe this experience will give them the independence to go off and run their own tea gardens, using a more modern and beneficial approach.
“How do you describe when something just tastes pure, as it should? This is exactly what happened to the tea when we harvested our first crop”
Quality and purity of taste is often correlated with organic practices. Buying Shenteng and Emily’s autumn crop every year for the past five years, we know we’ve benefited from their perseverance – we love the taste of their tea.
“I want to still be making tea when I am 90 years old.”
Shenteng estimates he drinks “probably 100 cups of tea a day” and considers it his responsibility “for everyone involved” to improve the quality of his Ali Shan every year. Happily for us, and for tea drinkers around the world, both he and Emily have no plans to stop what they’re doing anytime soon.
To find out more about how we first met Shenteng and Emily, and what their tea tastes like, take a look at our Deep Dive into Ali Shan.