數十年的經驗及技術

Wang You-li: A Pioneer of Organic Teas

Even among lovers of Pinglin District’s fabled teas, few know about Wang You-li’s teas, whose quiet fame has mostly been spread by word of mouth and an unwaveringly supportive customer base over the years. Yet, the few in the know consistently agree that Wang’s organic teas are some of the best in town.

The Beginning

Twenty years ago, Wang’s family members passed away after being poisoned by insecticides. After such a harrowing experience, Wang decided to take action, as a tribute to his family. Inspired by a local environmental group trying to protect Pinglin’s water resources through organic farming, Wang was motivated to do the same, and thus became the pioneer of organic teas in the Pinglin District.

Naturally, as a pioneer, Wang experienced more hardship than those who followed in the footsteps of others. In the first three years, his tea production slid steadily year after year and in fact, there was nothing for him to harvest in the third year. With the added financial pressure after the birth of his daughter, many believed it was time for him quit. However, Wang’s strong sense of purpose, as well as his tenaciousness, allowed him to persist for the next 20 years. Now, after decades of grueling hard work, Wang is able to enjoy and share the “teas” of his labor.

Wang’s Tea Plantation: A Symphony of Sounds

The first agonizing three years taught Wang the importance of allowing nature to run its course. At first glance, it may be difficult to distinguish Wang’s plantation from any other tea plantation. However, once you close your eyes and listen closely, you can begin to truly perceive the subtle differences which set it apart from other plantations. The vibrant cacophony of insects, the sweet hum of birds, and the soft sounds of a canine’s gait result in an animated symphony of sounds.

Experience has taught Wang when to expect the emergence of certain insects during the year. According to Wang, “It is important to just let the insects be. They have their own habitats, and if we leave them alone, they won’t spread and move to other parts of the plantation.” Wang’s approach to organic farming is rare even among organic farmers. Going beyond the call of duty to not use insecticides, he has also created a sanctuary where humans, plants, insects and birds co-exist peacefully.

Growing Difficulties

Like many tea plantations in Taiwan, Wang’s plantation faces the predicament of an aging labor force. At the turn of the harvest season, one sees only middle-aged women doing the work. It was not only until this year did Wang’s plantation bring in young blood – Wang’s very own daughter. A fresh university graduate, she willingly chose to give up the glamor of city life and returned to the mountains to help her father. Wang said with a smile, “It’s great that she chose to come back. I am no longer as able-bodied as I was before, so I’m glad that I have an extra helper around to lessen the burden. It’s quite demanding to work here, so I hope she persists.”

A Project involving Fushan Grange and Wang You-li

Rationale

Due to the lack of labor, tea plantations always scramble for workers during the harvesting season. At many plantations in Taiwan, the “ah po” (阿婆) – the female workers – all share one common characteristic: they are all quite elderly. Consequently, Wang once jokingly claimed that since the total age of the “ah po” is over 1000 years, the harvested teas should be named “Thousand Year Tea (千歲茶).”

On a more serious note, the aging labor force and the diminishing number of workers present real problems for tea plantations. In order to retain the “ah po”, Wang must increase the wages, provide transportation, and meals. Yet as the years pass, the “ah po” are no longer as dexterous as before and cannot harvest as much tea as before. Many tea plantations today encounter such a lose-lose situation where tea plantations have to increase costs to retain workers, and where workers also suffer due to the heavy amount of labor involved. For Wang, who takes ecological balance very seriously, the increasing costs have become hard to bear.

Fushan’s Assistance

To prevent such a situation from worsening, we decided to step in and help. After careful consideration with Wang, we came up with three objectives: to reduce human labor costs, to increase revenue for tea plantations, and to build a new and compelling value proposition for the tea.

Reducing Labor Costs and Increasing Revenue

After rounds of discussion, we decided to first of all mechanize the tea harvesting process. This was largely beneficial in two ways: first of all, Wang no longer had to spend as much time looking for workers who were willing to accept his salary range; secondly, tea leaves were harvested at a faster rate. This allowed the tea leaves to be processed at peak freshness. Consequently, not only did tea quantity increase, but so did its quality as well. This means that both the first and second objectives could finally be achieved.

As of early 2014, only some of Wang’s tea has been harvested using machines and he has plans for expansion. According to Wang, if all the tea leaves are harvested using machines, he would be able to save hundreds of thousands in costs.

Creating a New and Compelling Value Proposition

            Although the initial results associated with mechanized harvesting were positive, there was still a significant issue – mechanized harvesting meant that there were more shredded tea leaves. While this issue also existed when tea was handpicked, it was not as serious and Wang was able to simply steep the tea leaves for himself or recycle them as compost. However, if Wang was to continue using this approach with the increased amount of tea shreds, it would be a blatant waste and would essentially negate his efforts in the past year. To solve this problem, we decided to create a new and compelling value proposition for the shredded tea leaves.

After further research, we unexpectedly discovered that the shredded tea leaves contain high concentrations of the antioxidant catechin, which is beneficial for cardiovascular health. The shredded tea further facilitates the dissolving of catechin, which we used this as our new value proposition. However, since the idea of consuming tea steeped with shredded tea leaves was not widely popular in the Taiwanese tea market, we had to modify the intended product to make it more appealing to the public. To better market this product, we worked with Wang to blend the shredded tea leaves with another tea. After months of repeated trials, we had finally nailed it – we decided to mix the shredded tea leaves with youju (油菊), a type of chrysanthemum grown atop Taiwan’s many peaks.

The Next Step

What ultimately came about is a blended organic tea that embodies the best of Taiwan’s teas, and whose tastiness does not shy in comparison to pure teas. As people savor this cup of tea, we hope they realize the efforts that tea farmers have put into creating it. Only when people are more aware of the hardships and benefits involved in growing good organic tea can sustainable agriculture begin to truly thrive in Taiwan.

And now, let us toast to a cup of good tea.