Tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world, yet nearly all of the tea consumed in the United States is imported, said Carol Miles, horticulture researcher at the Mount Vernon Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center.

Miles and research assistant Adam Elcan are seeing if that can be changed.

They began propagating tea plants from cuttings in 2019 after the center received its first nursery research funding grant from the state Department of Agriculture.

The agriculture department announced in early April that the research team was awarded the grant again for 2022.

The goal of the team’s project is to understand how tea grows in the Pacific Northwest and to write a guidebook on propagating and raising tea plants for nurseries in the state to grow commercially, Miles said.

A young, established tea plant can sell at a nursery for about $35, Elcan said. High prices and an untapped market make the potential tea industry lucrative in the U.S.

“Historically, it’s still pretty new,” Elcan said about the domestic tea market.

Minto Island Tea Company in Salem, Oregon, is currently the only tea farm in the western U.S. Sakuma Bros.

Farms west of Burlington once farmed about 5 acres of tea, but a pest outbreak caused the berry farm to abandon its tea operation.

Minto grows and sells tea plants and organic, craft tea. All tea starts with the same plant, camellia sinensis, and is processed into various kinds of teas.

If the research’s findings inspire a tea market in Skagit Valley, it would likely be for craft tea, like Minto, to accommodate for high land and input costs, Miles said.

“Anything grown here costs more money,” she said.

In 2019, the research team ordered cuttings of tea plants from Alabama and Hawaii. Tea is typically grown in tropical regions of Asia or in the mountains of Nepal and India, Elcan said.

Of the roughly 300 plants from the original clippings, there are about 20 that are alive today.

“We get paid to make all the mistakes,” Miles said.

Since the success rate has been low, the team shifted the focus of the project to finding a successful propagation technique for tea plants in Pacific Northwest climate, rather than establishing the plants.

To propagate the plants, the team cuts a stem off of the main plant, dips it in a growth hormone and transfers it to a container to take root, Miles said.

The original plants were put in a pot with potting soil and left to root in a Rubbermaid box inside of a greenhouse.

When that didn’t work, the team shifted to propagate the cuttings in pots full of primarily bark and put them in humidity chambers, which were constructed from a plastic sheet draped over PVC pipes that mist the plants once an hour for about 30 seconds.

“That’s been the key,” Elcan said.

The plants that were propagated in November and December of 2021 showed a 90% success rate. They are now in a humidity chamber that mists water less frequently to prepare them for a nursery setting.

Depending on how this year’s experiments go, the team will re-apply for the nursery research funding grant next year.

Eventually, the pair wants to simulate shipping conditions for tea plants to test the logistics of sending plants to nurseries, Elcan said.

Reporter Maddie Smith 360-416-2139, msmith@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Maddie_SVH

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