Huaxing Cooperative -- Wendou, LIchuan
Huaxing produces two kinds of tea presently: Lichuanhong, for which it holds official government recognition and Potianxiang, an experimental Oolong.
The Lichuanhong grown by this cooperative is unique on two points. It is produced using a Oolong varietal called Qilan, giving it an extra floral accent and more tolerance in the kneading process. Secondly, the cooperative’s uniquely low elevation (350 meters ) makes it one of earliest red teas to hit the market in Central China each Spring. Being an officially recognized Lichuanhong producer does mean however that the slightly bent leaf shape and small pick size must be maintained. It can also produce the famous “cream down” if overbrewed and allowed to sit for more than an hour in an environment below 16 degrees Celsius.
Potianxiang is something new altogether. Master Gong has picked leaves from some of the not-so-ancient wild tea trees in Wendou. Their age is estimated to be only around 100 years, but the shape of the leaves and the taste of the brew that these trees yield is quite different from the modern varietals used orthodox Lichuanhong production. Master Gong has also put the leaves through Fujian style yaoqing processing, making the final product one of Central China’s first original Oolong teas. Floral, light, and unnuanced, this innovation is a pleasant treat that deserves your attention.
("Cream Down Effect" using Huaxing's highest grade Lichuanhong)
Wendou township is a new tea production area that only started to grow the leaf commercially in 2015. Already holding the title “first tobacco town in Hubei” for its massive state-owned tobacco farms, Wendou has been eager to follow nearby Zhonglu and Maoba townships’ positive experiences in tea-led rural rejuvenation. There are many reasons to believe Wendou will be successful in this effort.
Wendou is ostensibly the oldest officially registered tea tree in Hubei Province. The estimated age of this modestly sized trees clocks in at a slightly underwhelming 250 years. Nonetheless, it is evidence of the tea trees that put these mountains on the map for tea merchants as early as the Tang Dynasty. Wendou also features the upper banks of the “Misery River” (Yu Jiang), several scenic dams, and the largest elevation gap (1,400 meters) of any township in the Enshi Autonomous State. Driving from the tea fields to the township government office takes a treacherous hour long trip up cliff-side switchbacks.
The specific village where the Huaxing Tea Cooperative is located bears the peculiarly modern name of Nongke, meaning“agricultural science.”It was here that consolidated rice patties were made into the site of bottom-up breeding experiments during the collective era (1958-1984). It is here now that the local government hopes tourists will come to drink tea, swim, fish, and explore the area’s partially submerged caves.
(Yu Jiang pictured from Nongke Village)
“There’s no money in rice. Rice farmers can’t make enough to support themselves with so little land. The government is giving us a lot of money now to development new agriculture.” -Cooperative Director Zhou Youquan.
In the last few decades, interest in these once famous rice fields declined as government grain obligations ended in the mid-2000’s. For some years, “fallow the fields and regrow the forests” was official policy here. Tobacco and hydroelectric power meant the public sector prospered. Meanwhile, the local labor force, including the three major organizers of the Huaxing Cooperative, had all left for jobs in coastal industry centers. Nongke seemed to lose its relevance. Now, as part of a larger national effort towards “rural rejuvenation,”Nongke is leading Chinese agriculture in a new way: ecological production. With the full weight of the Wendou government behind the farm, 450~ mu of former rice paddies have become tea fields.
(“Tobacco leaves above and tea leaves below; stabilize tobacco, build up tea, and bring along others.")
The co-op got started only in 2015, but it hit has the ground running. The factory was opened with the help of government loans, two universities' technical guidance, and a personally blessing from Wang Qimao, the original mogul behind Lichuanhong. When the corona virus pandemic delayed marketing, some 95% of Wendou Township government workplaces stepped up to fill the gap, stipulating each employee needed to spend 500 RMB per person on the local tea. Emerging from these challenges, the co-op has successively won the title of “model cooperative”at the county, state, and now provincial levels.
Why so much love? For starters, the cooperative has passed three years of rigorous organic production screening. Secondly, Huaxing’s practical operation does bear some resemblance to a cooperative organization. Co-op members receive free fertilizer and guaranteed above-market prices for the fresh leaves they pick; the cooperative in turn strictly processes the tea of only contracted co-op members and oversees the direct management of the fields according to domestic organic requirements. The cooperative is also eager to help out other Wendou industries. This has included hosting a local TV station media event and teaming up with a local pigeon farm as the new source of their organic fertilizer.
It must be noted however that the cooperative is still a relatively minor player in the local tea market and is by no measure yet profitable. As is the case of every other Chinese cooperative we’ve worked with, the label of “cooperative” must be understood to be limited in scope. There are hired employees and Huaxing is in reality a publicly-supported private agribusiness owned by Zhou Youquan and managed by his son in law, Master Gong. The positive social and ecological work of the cooperative is nonetheless genuine.
(Director Zhou, Alex, Master Gong)