Big Island Tea: Interview with Eliah Halpenny, a Hawaiian Tea Farmer

Eliah Halpenny, Hawaiian tea farmer
Eliah Halpenny, Hawaiian tea farmer.

Reminder: For a chance to win some free tea, leave a comment on this post with some ideas for what you’d like to see more of on Tea Finely Brewed.

A few weeks ago I wrote about Kilinoe Green Tea, a Hawaiian-grown tea sold by Narien Teas. Today, I’m really pleased to publish an interview with Eliah Halpenny, the tea farmer running Big Island Tea, the small eco-organic tea farm producing Kilinoe and other tea varieties. Eliah has a busy life ? as you’ll gather from reading the interview ? so I’m very thankful she took the time out to share about her personal journey towards becoming a tea farmer, and her thoughts on the future of the Hawaiian tea industry.

When did you start drinking tea?

My ?rst memory of drinking tea was at my Scottish grandmother?s. She served us tea and toast for breakfast. The toast was slathered in butter and dunked into black tea sweetened heavily, white with milk. Mmmmm–such a treat.

During my late teens I found herbal teas and still sip peppermint and other herbal infusions for late in the day.

?Tea…is the drink of Gods!?

But my ?rst really delicious cup of tea was tasted in Holland.

When I spent time in Holland in my early twenties, (my children?s father is Dutch) my father-in-law introduced me to ?ne whole leaf tea. I remember him standing poised with his bone china teacup, having just ceremoniously savoured a sip of tea declaring, ?Tea…is the drink of Gods!?

What did you do before you grew tea?

I was a single mother for 11 years. In that time frame, I sold advertising for a newspaper in Vancouver, Canada. That career was 100 % commission based! With good instincts for demographic trends, a love of the visual/graphic arts, a gregarious personality and a keen desire to offer my daughters a role model for developing healthy social skills, I found a successful niche in marketing and advertising.

During my 11 year stint at the newspaper I imagined myself eventually having my own product to sell. I knew who my market was even before I knew that I wanted to grow tea. The Baby Boomers.

I knew that tea was the plant for me ? a plant that does not need pesticides ? a sustainable commercial crop!

I know a fair bit about this demographic bulge in our population ? I am a Baby Boomer. (One who does not take myself too seriously?enough of the navel gazing already! ) I knew that if I could ?nd a product that captured the whim of this group, it would be a guaranteed success. I had witnessed the rise of so many ?health food products?. What kind of product could I produce to ?ll the need of this aging demographic group?

I ?oated with this fantasy for 10 years while I worked the trenches of print advertising. I should mention that I have been an avid backyard horticulturist most of my adult life. I studied landscape architecture, geography, soil and plant science at university. Before having children, I also worked as a commercial gardener and did a summer stint as a soil surveyor for Agriculture Canada.

When my new found love/ husband was offered a job at the University of Hawaii-Hilo in 1999, I realized it was time to start my own business. My husband, Dr. Cam Muir, is my partner in Big Island Tea as well as a geneticist/professor in the Biology department at UHH.

In the fall of 2001 (I had just moved to Hawaii to join Cam) I read an article in a local newspaper pro?ling a Hilo-based USDA researcher who was announcing his ?ndings about a 5 year project studying the viability of growing tea in Hawaii. I practically jumped off my seat knowing that I had found my muse.

What inspired you to grow tea in Hawai`i?

When I ?rst arrived in Hawai`i I could not work, as I am a Canadian citizen. I had decided that I wanted to start a ?ower farm and then ship ?owers to Vancouver. I did an orchid growing course. I learned quickly that I was unwilling to spray neuro-toxin pesticides on the ?owers, nor did I want pay another to do the deed.

Long ago I became an organic farmer because I witnessed the direct effects of an application of chemical fertilizer on our vegetable garden and the immediate reaction to the worms, our friendly soil builders. I chose the worms over chemicals. You can observe, healthy soil is alive with microorganisms and a healthy soil grows healthy plants, a basic green thumb fact.

When I read that article about tea?s viability in Hawai`i, the researcher mentioned that Camellia sinensis? had a resiliency to known pests in Hawai`i, that it thrives on Hawai`i?s acidic volcanic soil and crazy amount of rainfall on the east side of Big Island. I lived near Volcano where one of the research stations was having success with tea. I knew that tea was the plant for me ? a plant that does not need pesticides ? a sustainable commercial crop!

I called the researcher, he sent me 9 seeds, they all germinated and I knew that I could grow the plant. I now have ~6000 plants.

Over 8 years, we have selected plants that are best suited to the 3000 feet slope of Mauna Loa volcano. It is an on-going project, how to grow healthy tea plants and process the most delicious tea possible.

I am inspired by my love of the tea plant. It is beautiful to look at, so hardy, yet requiring many hours of care and attention. Everyday I get to work outside on the tea, I cannot believe my luck at ?nding myself creating such a ful?lling project!

When I ?nish hand-picking, hand-rolling each batch of tea, I know that drinkers will taste the amazing taste of this upland tropical paradise. My hands smell like tea after each processing, I am intoxicated by the smell without even drinking it. I recently brought a sample of our green tea to Canada to share, the comment made was it smells like your farm, sweet, light and citrussy.

Hawaiian tea
Hawaiian tea.

What would you compare your tea to?

I cannot compare our tea although a few years back a group of Big Island Tea farmers had a tea party to share our brews. Although each had their own ?nished taste and look, there was an underlying taste throughout everyone?s sample. I think it is the soil, sunshine, rain and air ? the light, citrussy taste of paradise.

What have been the biggest challenges setting up our tea farm?

The biggest challenge getting our farm going has been acquiring plant material. Initially it took many months sur?ng the web until I found a source for excellent viable tea seed. I met a contact from Darjeeling, India; these seedlings are my best plants. We were given and sold cuttings from the USDA/Hawaii. Our wish is to grow tea sustainably, we veto the idea of solely a clonal crop.

Another challenge was learning how to grow plants organically that can survive within our micro-environment. Apart from a small pamphlet documenting the limited tea research done on the Big Island, we have had to re-invent the wheel. I have used the internet and books to educate but I think our on-going learning curve has slowed down the whole process.

Being a 56 year old woman (with no working capital) starting up such an ambitious tea project has been a stretch. My husband?s work load at the university is minimally 60hrs/ week. He helps on weekends and for the ?rst time this summer, he worked full time on the farm.

So, I have had to work like an ox to get all of the tea in the ground. We now harvest and process –another dimension of our goal. I have had to get our accounting and marketing in place…wheww! I de?nitely wear too many hats. I wish that I had started this when I were younger or that I had an army of children to enlist on our farm!

Are there many other tea farms in Hawai`i?

There are approximately 6 farms that are now processing tea. There are new farmers joining the ranks but everyone has the same obstacle, acquiring plant material. The agricultural outreach centre and the Hawai`i Tea Society offer clones to those who can wait as they are distributed in a limited fashion. There are also now farms on the other Hawaiian islands starting up. This is a pioneer industry.

What sets your tea farm apart from the other tea farms?

In truth, I have a vague idea but do not know what the others are doing on their farm. I do believe we are the only farm that is re-foresting our land with native trees. We are farming on 16 feet of volcanic soil in an area which was forested in the 1960?s for pastureland. Endemic koa trees are nitrogen ?xing and cast just the right amount of shade for our tea. We are planting these trees and many other native varieties to enrich the soil and to recreate a mid-elevation rainforest canopy.

As well, we have a 100,000 gallon pond which are teeming with koi and Asian cat?sh ? we use this nutrient rich water to irrigate our crop. I do not believe anyone else has this fertilization system.

My husband?s knowledge is paramount in expanding our vision for sustainable agriculture. We are researching new farming practices, meshed with aquaculture for local farmers to utilize. The gap left on this island when the cane industry died can be ?lled with a new crop, Camellia sinensis.

Lastly, we have satellite growers. These farmers are growing tea that we have supplied them and we are mentoring them with their projects. We have learned a bit about growing tea in Hawaii over the past 8 years and share our expertise freely. We love to help other tea farmers get started because we know there is a great opportunity for many.

How do you hope to see the Hawaiian tea industry develop over the next decade? Is there a lot of room for growth?

There is sooooo much room for growth that it is giddy-making. Think of it, tea is the most consumed liquid in the world next to water and right here in North America, there are only a handful of growers!!! How much more opportunity could one need?

Cam and I talk to people all the time, encouraging them to get on-board, to get some tea growing. More farmers growing tea will help launch the Hawai`i tea industry. Tea is a crop that is a good ?t for Hawai`i. The market is perfect for the introduction of a new specialty tea; the growing conditions are perfect in Hawai`i; everybody worldwide loves Hawai`i; we are producing a unique taste; the media educates everyone with the health bene?ts of tea; and there are only a few small farms in North America.

I see the Hawaii tea industry as a success story in the making. It is important for Hawai`i that diversi?ed agriculture ?lls the gap left by the ending of the

sugar cane, pineapple, macademia nut industries. The tea we are planting today can be harvested over the next multitude of generations if grown with healthy farming practices. The current marketing opportunity to produce a specialty tea is one that we encourage all farmers to embrace.

The burgeoning Hawai`i tea industy is wide open for development, investors and entrepreneurs.

You can buy Big Island Tea through Narien Teas

Discussion

  • 1

    Fantastic interview. Eliah is an inspiration and her teas are delicious. If you’re interested, I also reviewed her Kilinoe green (4-23-09 post).

  • 2

    Eliah is such a trailblazer, it’s really inspiring. Others are sure to follow. I’m also impressed by just how much work has gone into developing this little tea garden. It’s partly just because it’s the first of its kind but it’s also because the origins of tea are fraught with effort. –Spirituality of Tea

  • 3

    We would really very much like to find green tea plants or seeds to grow on our farm…possibly for sale at some distant point. Any ideas?

Leave a Reply