Tea has helped poor farmers in Yunnan find a way out of destitution thanks to the efforts of one man who had a chance to encounter some local farmers there, Yang Feiyue reports.
Ren Huaican now looks to tea from Yunnan after the green leaves worked magic for him. Ren was suffering mass mouth ulcers when he visited the Jingmai Mountain in Pu'er city back in the spring of 2006. "I had trouble eating," he says.
Then, he saw a row of ancient tea trees on the mountain, and some local farmers were harvesting tea leaves. "So, I picked off six or seven leaves and chewed them," Ren recalls.
The next morning, the pain was gone and the ulcers began to heal.
Whether it was the tea working or something else, the experience prompted Ren to explore the tea resources in the province, which led him to discover that the local tea business was quite scattered and done on a very small scale.
During his search for tea production bases in the mountains across Yunnan, Ren found that nearly 10 million people were involved in the tea business, but the underdeveloped tea market had kept local tea farmers from selling the natural treasure properly to the public.
The highest price for premium tea was only 30 yuan ($4.36) a kilogram at that time, while good quality tea was mostly priced at 4-5 yuan a kilogram, according to Ren.
"Most of tea farmers were living in extreme poverty," he says.
That's when Ren made up his mind to try and change things in the tea industry.
"It was not just because the tea industry was not developed, but more about working to help tea farmers who live off the land to get out of poverty," says Ren.
Before moving into the tea industry, Ren's company North Star had already been a force to be reckoned with in Yunnan, with its booming tourism and jade businesses.
He established the Kunming Colorful Yunnan King-Shine Tea Industry Co in September 2006.
The company then invested in an organic tea plantation that covers an area of over 7,000 mu (466.7 hectares) in Bulangshan town of Menghai county, in Xishuangbanna Dai autonomous prefecture.
The town is a major tea production zone in Yunnan.
Zhang Hongfei from North Star was the first to arrive on the scene in 2007.
"It was barren mountains all over, and the weeds had grown to a height of a grown man," the 41-year-old from Yunnan's Dali Bai autonomous prefecture says.
He led a team of five to the town's Banzhang village, where locals were mostly struggling to make ends meet.
"They relied on making coarse tea from old tea trees and growing rice," Zhang says.
There were no place for Zhang's team to stay, and no water and road connections.
Everything had to be built from scratch.
"We found a water source in the forest and channeled it to the uncared-for farmland, and built a road," he says.
Then, Zhang began to hire poor peasants from neighboring areas.
More than 100 peasants were employed to remove weeds, plant tea tree seedlings and pick tea leaves.
Technicians from a tea research institute were also invited to teach the peasants how to do their jobs scientifically.
"For example, they had to know how to grade the tea leaves and put them into each category accordingly," Zhang explains.
Now, Zhang's team has expanded to 200 members, most of whom are migrant farmers. And they can each earn about 100-120 yuan a day for their work.
Meanwhile, two-story houses were built near the tea plantation for the workers to live.
"And many of them have settled there with their families," says Zhang.
Zhang Zhongrong from Lancang county, which is 300 kilometers away from the plantation, has worked at the plantation for more than a decade.
"My family was down to kitchen utensils and ragged mattress when we came here," he says.
But after years of training, Zhang and his wife now manage 20 mu of tea trees at the plantation.
"We've got everything here, all necessary home appliances," Zhang says.
Now, the village resembles a mass of green thanks to the tea trees. And the plantation can produce 60 kilograms per mu of land at the moment.
For the farmers who lived off the old tea trees, Zhang and his team have taught them how to scientifically manage their trees and produce premium tea.
"We asked them to refrain from applying fertilizer and pesticide," Zhang says.
Modern tea making methods were also taught to them to improve their output.
As a result, their tea quality has significantly improved, and the price they get has gone up to around 5,000-10,000 yuan a kilogram, according to Zhang.
After the fresh tea leaves are picked, a series of treatments follow, including standardized drying and washing, before they are sent to the King-Shine tea company's processing plant in the provincial capital Kunming for further processing.
Speaking about the processing, Tian Jun, general manager of the tea company, says: "We've developed machines of our own to satisfy customer needs,"
This has greatly increased the efficiency of the process. And all tea products have to go through more than 130 quality control processes, according to Tian.
However, certain traditional teamaking methods have been maintained.
For example, Longzhu tea requires workers to ball tea leaves up without crushing them.
"It takes time to grasp how to apply the right amount of pressure to do this," Tian explains.
Earlier this year, the King-Shine tea company came up with industry standards and a tracking system for its products. This is to ensure consistent tea quality.
The tea company realized a total output value of 3.06 billion yuan over 2006-18, contributing 552 million yuan in taxes. And it has helped nearly 5,000 poor rural families to get out poverty.
For Zhang, the tea plantation has become his home. And he turned down better income and job opportunities in Beijing.
"It's hard to leave with all the things we've done and all the people I have come to know over the years," he says.
And he enjoys good relations with the tea farmers.
"They invite me to such events as their children's birthdays, and it's like we are a big family," Zhang says.