Japanese Green Tea Fertilizer
As you may know, great quality teas come from great quality soils. One way farmers ensure their plants can absorb enough nutrients is by using fertilizers. Organic farmers often use recycled plant matter as an alternative to chemical fertilizer. This natural, organic fertilizer not only improves the strength of the tea plant, but also it recycles nutrients from the ecosystem and ensures less material is wasted. To see this in action, let’s head off to Shizuoka.
Shizuoka is the prefecture of Japan right next to Tokyo, and is home to some of the largest tea plantations in all of Japan. In addition to being home to larger tea fields, it is also home to some smaller tea fields as well. Today we are going to be checking in on a husband and wife who own a small tea field on their property, and use organic fertilizer to tend to the field in a more natural, sustainable way.
This couple switched to organic farming 25 years ago when their first child was born. They were concerned the pesticides they put on the tea field could be harmful to the health of their kids, so they decided to switch to safer, organic fertilizers.
Rather than introducing new elements into the tea field, the farmers simply use the plants that grow on the field naturally and use those to fertilize the tea plant. Here you can see all the different plants that were mulched and placed between the rows of the tea field. This keeps the plants strong and healthy, without introducing new material to the ecosystem.
Next up, we would be headed to Takachiho, a small village in the mountainous Miyazaki prefecture. This area is famous for its production of a rare pan-fired green tea called “Kamairicha”. This tea is made up in the mountains of Takachiho, by Mr. Issin and his family. Mr. Issin is very careful about the ingredients he uses in his fertilizer. He makes a compost out of discarded rice hulls, and other leftover food scraps. This not only minimizes food waste on the farm, but also returns nutrients to the soil to make sure it is not depleted. He makes sure that all of the ingredients in his fertilizer are pesticide free and non-GMO.
With all this attention to detail, Mr. Issin is able to craft beautiful roasted green teas. Unlike most Japanese green teas, this tea is pan fired, giving it some warmer notes of hazelnut and caramel. He also produces a fully roasted tea called Hojicha. This tea is as dark as coffee, and produces an incredibly powerful taste.
We continue our journey to the small town of Shibushi, to meet a talented farmer named Mr. Sakamoto. Mr. Sakamoto has been working in the tea industry since he was a little boy, and when it was his turn to take over the family farm, he decided to turn it completely organic. This was not quite as easy as it sounds, as Mr. Sakamoto specialized in the production of Gyokuro, the highest quality leaf tea in Japan. This tea is cut off from sunlight for 3 weeks prior to the harvest, in order to develop more chlorophyll and theanine. This gives the tea a sweeter and more savory flavor, but it takes a lot of skill to keep the plant healthy during this long shading process. For this reason, most farmers use chemicals and pesticides to support the growth of the plant and as a result, it is quite rare to find good quality organic Gyokuro.
Mr. Sakamoto came up with an innovative solution. He found out a way to create a fertilizer out of sedimentary rock, which is essentially just a buildup of plant and animal material over millions of years. This is nutrient rich, but it needs to be activated. Sakamoto then adds another ingredient, a special type of “Bokashi” fertilizer made from soybeans. This creates a supercharged fertilizer that keeps the plants strong and healthy, even throughout the long shading process. He demonstrates the strength of the organic tea plants by comparing organic vs. non organic tea plants. The organic plant stays strong and healthy even after it is picked, while the non-organic plant begins to lose its leaves even after being out of the ground for only a week.
Mr. Sakamoto will often judge the quality of a tea just by examining the leaf. He says that tea leaves that grow without the use of organic fertilizer are missing out on key nutrients, which makes the leaves weaker. He even likes to hold the tea leaves up to the light to see if they are translucent. This means that the tea leaf has a lower cellular density. The results speak for themselves, as Mr. Sakamoto’s tea hs made him a legend in this area. He now is in charge of the Kagoshima organic tea growing association, and leads initiatives to explore new varieties of tea plants and new production methods every year. Farmers even purchase Mr. Sakamoto's fertilizer for use in their own fields.
Even though the methods are different, the mission is the same. The farmers want to create good quality tea, while only introducing natural elements to their tea field. By doing this, they can promote a balance between their tea field and the natural world.