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Originally published Monday, August 17, 2009 at 12:01 AM

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Farm ventures into exotic yet local product: tea

Twelve years ago, Sakuma Bros. Farms in Western Washington started on its way to growing a good cup of tea. Growing Camellia sinensus, commonly known as "the tea plant," was completely new territory for the berry farm. But it had a guide to point the way - agricultural consultant and tea planter John Vendeland of Corvallis, Ore.

(Salem) Capital Press

BURLINGTON, Wash. —

Twelve years ago, Sakuma Bros. Farms in Western Washington started on its way to growing a good cup of tea. Growing Camellia sinensus, commonly known as "the tea plant," was completely new territory for the berry farm. But it had a guide to point the way - agricultural consultant and tea planter John Vendeland of Corvallis, Ore.

During a recent presentation about the farm's tea-growing venture, Richard Sakuma said Vendeland was interested in expanding tea plantings to Western Washington because its winters were mild and it was close to the many tea drinkers in British Columbia.

"His vision was to create an area in the Northwest for tea similar to Napa Valley for wine," Sakuma said. "We thought it was a long shot, but we were looking for an alternative crop and something new."

The farm planted an array of varieties on 5 acres. Six or seven varieties did well, but December's extremely cold weather took all but three or four of them out. "It was a good test," Sakuma said. There were many other tests along the way. How to weed the crop, and foremost, how to actually turn it into tea.

Sakuma experimented with a range of low-tech equipment: a hedge trimmer with a black plastic bag attached for harvesting the tender top leaves and buds, a meat grinder to grind the leaves, a wok to heat them and a cookie sheet to dry them on.

"We kept the hope that some day this would be a successful venture," Sakuma said with a smile.

But harvesting and processing hundreds of acres of strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and blueberries kept the Sakumas busy enough that they found little time for the "grand experiment." But when the health benefits of tea started to surface four or five years ago, the Sakumas became more motivated to turn the crop into an economic venture.

Another plus was the local food movement.

"The advantage of growing tea here is that it's domestic and it's promoting our farm and its crops," he said. The project, which had been based on a series of on-the-farm experiments, took on an added urgency. "But I longed for real equipment," Sakuma said.

The farm decided to bite the bullet and order some equipment from Taiwan - a huge investment. When it arrived last fall, the instructions were in Mandarin Chinese.

"We had no idea how to use it, but it was here," Sakuma said.

While attending the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas this year, he learned about a tea tour in Taiwan. While looking at the photos of a previous tour, he saw some of the same equipment he had bought. And even though the tour was going to be held in the middle of the farm's hectic strawberry season, Sakuma decided he should go.

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On the trip he visited farms, tea gardens, tea-tasting rooms and research centers, where he learned a great deal about the history and culture that goes into a good cup of tea. Best of all, he had the opportunity to participate in various stages of the processing - drying, heating, and rolling the leaves to balance out the moisture in the leaves.

He also learned about the new direction tea-growing is taking. Back at the farm, the Sakumas have used the new equipment and made some loose-leaf white tea that's available at their farm stand near Burlington, Wash.

They're currently running test batches of green tea.

"Our goal is to serve a really good cup of tea," Sakuma said.

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