Taken with tea: Richard Sakuma sprouts an alternative Northwest crop

Sound Consumer | December 2012

by Bill Thorness

Richard Sakuma’s hand grazes the new growth as he reaches out over a tea plant. With a quick twist he nips the tips off a branch and eyes the light-green flush on the next one.

He’s demonstrating the one-handed pluck, pinching the most recent growth shoot — just two leaves and a bud — and bending it until the stem breaks. A new shoot will emerge at the leaf node below the break, and the Pacific Northwest’s first and only tea operation will continue to grow.

The third-generation Skagit Valley farmer, whose well-known family has been growing berries since the 1930s, is taken with tea.

Now more than a dozen years into his experiment to bring locally grown tea to Northwesterners, Sakuma has learned many of the processes, from picking to oxidizing, and hopes his evolving understanding of tea cultivation — and the productivity of his small acreage of Camellia sinensis — will attract local growers and tea aficionados.

"I can’t wait to try it!" says PCC View Ridge customer Megan Hutcheson, who is firmly in the camp of the locavore shopper, whenever possible supporting locally produced food. "I think people who are passionate about drinking tea will become informed about it and want to find something new and different," she says.

Sakuma also is catching a trend of tea popularity and hopes the effort eventually will result in a new commercial crop for the region. But the project is as fraught with hurdles as it is flush with potential. Something new

Tea plants come primarily from tropical climates and mountainous regions, not from alluvial, flatland soil five miles from a northern sea.

"I garden, so I’m aware of how difficult it is to grow plants in a climate they’re not used to," says Hutcheson. "I applaud his efforts to try to grow something that historically never has been grown in this region."

Much of our tea comes from China, Indonesia and India, with Argentina, Kenya and Tanzania also large producers. There is only one other tea operation in the mainland United States — the Charleston Tea Plantation in South Carolina — although there is an expanding crop in Hawaii too, spurred by the desire for a new, locally grown product, which was also Sakuma’s vision.

Visionary beginning

In the late 1990s, Sakuma got started with 20 varieties on five acres, tending a varied tea garden for the first few years. He found the plants grow like blueberries — the Sakuma family’s largest crop — in moist, acidic soil with lots of organic matter.

By 2006 Sakuma started experimenting with making tea. "We begin plucking in June and stop in mid-September," he says. He learned that processing is tricky, as the harvest must be tended immediately, and factors of temperature and humidity can greatly change the results. He has experimented with different growing and processing methods, learning through trial and error.

In 2008 a snow storm and freeze hit the valley, and many of the plants succumbed, tender from heavy fertilization and pruning. Sakuma was undeterred. He regrouped, tending to the one-third of the plants that still remained.

Local partnering

"He’s putting his heart and soul into his teas and is not afraid to learn by doing," says Chuck Bauman, co-founder of Portland-based Jasmine Pearl Tea Company. Sakuma and Bauman were introduced by PCC merchandiser Elin Smith, who Sakuma approached when he was ready to bring his tea to the Seattle market. Smith saw how the two could partner and asked them to create two special Northwest blends for PCC. She knew PCC customers would appreciate a local tea option.

Bauman thought Sakuma’s delicate tea would enhance blends made with other Northwest ingredients, such as certified organic nettles and lemon balm. Sakuma’s white tea is "extremely well-picked and well-made," says Bauman.

The fruitful result of the collaboration between these two local tea entrepreneurs? PCC is pleased to carry two Northwest tea blends, one white, one black, now in the bulk tea section.

The partnership may be giving Sakuma momentum. With every batch, he says his technique evolves. He›s only making about 150 pounds of tea a year, which involves harvesting four to five times as many pounds of fresh leaves. But he’s establishing a new planting, creating a demonstration plot, and in five years intends to sell plant starts to other growers who in five more years will be in full production of their own tea. "In 2025," he says with quiet determination, "we’re going to have the first Skagit Valley Tea Festival."

Like wine, chocolate and coffee, tea has terroir, the sense of place imbued by where it was grown. Sakuma’s tea has the terroir of the Skagit Valley and of his careful cultivation methods. Not much is more comforting than a steaming cup of tea, no matter its provenance. One that’s locally grown and produced is more comforting still.

Bill Thorness is a Seattle-based writer and editor and author of two gardening books. He teaches editing for the University of Washington’s Professional and Continuing Education program.

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