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University of Florida researchers studying tea as possible alternative crop to citrus

James Orrock, a first-year plant pathology doctoral student at the University of Florida, waters camellias in a greenhouse. Orrock says Florida’s acidic soil may produce new flavors in the plant.
James Orrock, a first-year plant pathology doctoral student at the University of Florida, waters camellias in a greenhouse. Orrock says Florida’s acidic soil may produce new flavors in the plant.
Published Dec. 9, 2016

On a given day, about 158 million Americans drink this beverage. No, not coffee. Tea.

In fact, the United States is the third-largest importer of tea, behind Russia and Pakistan. The 285 million pounds of tea imported into the United States in 2015 was valued at about $11.5 billion.

In order to offset Florida's declining citrus crop, researchers at the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, in partnership with Mississippi State University, are studying the possibility of growing camellias used to produce drinkable tea as one alternative crop.

In May, UF researchers planted eight varieties of camellias to find out how different genetic strains would fare in Florida.

"Tea will not be a replacement for citrus, but I think that tea could be part of a diverse profile for growers," said Brantlee Richter, a UF professor of plant pathology who is involved in the research.

Related: Dying on the vine: Florida's shriveling agriculture industry can't shake the fall of citrus, loss of land

The research, funded by a $60,165 grant from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, is only in its beginning stages, but researchers believe Florida's climate may work well for camellia production.

Central and North Florida, where the plants would most likely be grown commercially, have a climate similar to the state of Assam in India, said James Orrock, 26, a first-year UF plant pathology doctoral student involved in the research.

Assam is the largest tea-growing region in the world and accounts for 55 percent of India's total tea production.

Both Florida and Assam are flat regions that have well-draining soils, Orrock said.

Florida's soil acidity and nutrients may help bring out new flavors in the plant, similar to the way Darjeeling tea derives its distinct flavors from the Darjeeling region where it grows.

"I think Florida can have a very unique flavor profile that won't be easily duplicated anywhere else in the world," Orrock said.

Tea plants require a lot of water, said Carl Childers, professor emeritus of entomology at the University of Florida. "But the watering also has to drain off, because they don't tolerate wet feet, so to speak."

Childers has been studying mites that affect camellia plants grown in the United States for about a decade. These can either be pests that harm the plant or, in some cases, they can be beneficial.

The 10 states where tea is being produced are Hawaii, South Carolina, Virginia, North Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, Florida, Oregon and Washington. Hawaii — with nutrient-rich soil and a warm, humid atmosphere — has an ideal climate for camellia production. So far it is the only state that has experienced commercial tea success.

"None of the operations on the mainland are large enough to really produce any significant amounts of tea for commercial production," Childers said.

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Related: As Florida farmlands diminish, why is agriculture commissioner a cabinet-level job?

However, based upon his mite research and after visiting dozens of U.S. operations, he said Florida has a chance to develop commercial tea within a couple of decades. Starting off with smaller, well-maintained farms and developing cooperatives are two important factors that will help lead to Florida tea's commercial success.

"There are some big nurseries in Florida that grow or sell different flowering camellias," Childers said. "And I think that's probably the biggest plus for the possibility of commercial tea being grown in Florida."

In the future, he hopes predatory mites will act as pesticides on camellia plants as a replacement to chemicals, he said. During his research so far, the mites effectively deter other pests from attacking the camellia plants.

"If U.S. tea growers can grow tea and market it as being essentially pesticide-free, that would be a big incentive over tea being grown from a lot of these other places in the world where they probably spray the living daylights out of it to maintain it," Childers said.

Currently, many farmers are successfully diversifying by growing blueberries, while others are experimenting with less common crops, such as pomegranates and olives.

Richter said blueberries, which have seen the most success out of the alternative crops, require climate conditions similar to camellias.

"They could be good growing companions," she said.

Pomegranates and olives, on the other hand, are often impacted by tropical diseases as a result of Florida's humidity, Richter said.

William McMullen, a citrus farmer in Polk County, said one problem with crops like olives or camellias is that the equipment needed to process and package them do not currently have commercial centers in Florida.

"It's a perfect chicken-and-the-egg situation," he said. "You need the crops before the infrastructure, but you need to be able to process what you grow."

For now, UF researchers are trying to gauge grower and consumer interest in camellia crops and tea. Americans living in the South and Northeast are most likely to consume tea, and millennials are the most likely age group, according to the Tea Association of the U.S.A.

Richter said that tea, in addition to being used in different foods and beverages, is also a component of many beauty and health products like supplements and weight-loss products.

"There's just so many tea products out there now that run the gamut," she said. "I think there are a lot of opportunities for market niches."

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