Master Wei is a representative of what the Chinese government refers to as “new professional farmers.” This is to say that he is a skilled agricultural producer whose personal enterprise has adapted to marketization such that he is still able to derive his primary income from farming. Master Wei himself lives between his shop in Phoenix village, where his family often sleeps, and his home on the mountainside, where his parents still reside. As they only harvest once a year, during the Spring rush, he and his wife spend a few months in the mountains picking and processing tea. During the rest of the year, he and his wife operate the teahouse in the Phoenix village together, where they sell their self-produced tea and honey.
Master Wei and his wife at the teahouse in the Phoenix village
The tea drying platform by the mountainside production house
The Wei family owns 60 to 70 mu of land. Own is the operative word here. Legally speaking in China, the trading, inheritance, or ownership of land, especially rural land, does not exist. Economic actors instead trade and inherit usufruct, the right to use land. Generally, this usufruct is limited to 70 years, at which point it should return to public ownership. However, the political climate in Chaozhou is such that Master Wei regards the land as his own. All of it was; either given, inherited, or purchased, and all of it will be passed on to his sons – or so at least he feels.
As the land is situated on a steep mountain, many of the fields are terraced
This land situation is a significantly different than that of our other producers. For example, our producers in Enshi grow tea on land which is still predominantly collectivized. Rural land ownership there has been frozen for the next twenty years and is not allowed to be traded. Less extreme, in Yangzhou, the land which the Zhang and Lin families farm belongs to the cooperative, despite their choice to grow and market their allotted section independently. In the broader context of the Chinese countryside, Master Wei’s relationship with the land is unusually liberal and worthy of note. He is an outlier.
mossy tea trees, evidence of a long-established garden
On their 60 to 70 mu of land, the Wei’s maintain an impressive variety of tea bushes. On their higher plot, many varietals of dancong are propagated such as Baxian, Yashixiang, Zhilanxiang, gaishanxiang, and more. The majority of his old bushes (around 30-50 years old) are located here, which we visited in Spring of 2019. The trees are strong and go unpruned throughout the years, this causes them to grow incredibly tall, some are well over 20 feet high. Since the branches are thick and sturdy, but not large enough to climb without harming the tree, the pickers use ladders to harvest the leaves.
tea pickers use ladders to harvest the old-bush garden
At the lower plot (still over 1000 meters), which we toured in the fall of 2018, a mix of young and old bushes are present. Dacong varieties such as yashixiang, songzhong, milanxiang, dawuye, are present at this site. The average combined annual yield for each bush on these two plots fluctuates around 17 jin each year.
To the lower left, newly planted Yashixiang, behind master Wei, 30 or 40 year old unpruned Yashixiang.
This site is reminiscent of American Christmas tree farms. There was an incredible variety of bushes of different size, age, and variety, as one might observe while shopping for a yule-worthy pine. The oldest bush we saw was stated by Wei to be more than one hundred years old, while a grove of Milanxiang was grafted there in just recent years. Below are are some shots from the Wei Family’s lower plot.
The only tea tree Master Wei claimed to be over 80 years old
A tea tree totally destroyed by termites, this could have been avoided with the use of pesticides, and strikes us as evidence of a more natural approach to cultivation of these older tea bushes.
Master Wei's wife keeps bees up in the fields, the bees feed off blooming tea and other mountain flowers
Unlike both our low and mid-mountain producers, the Wei family picks for only one season, which lasts from roughly March 15th to May 1st. Production peaks around April 20th. Around this time, sixty to seventy pickers will be living in the dormitory constructed on the second floor of the Weis’ home. While there, they will receive 130 RMB as a daily wage. This is further supplemented by free lodging, meals, and transportation on behalf of the Weis’.
The duties performed by the Weis and these hired hands include picking and processing, as well as soil loosening and the application of chemical fertilizer. Although fertilizer is applied only to younger bushes, soil loosening must be performed for all bushes. This process requires workers to use shovels, pitchforks, and other implements to break up and aerate the soil surrounding tea bushes. Both these activities require a considerable level of skill and labor.
The production facility up on the mountain is set up to accommodate a lot of workers and produce a fair bit of tea
In the Spring of 2019, we will return to work and study alongside Master Wei’s tea crew.
In April of 2019, we returned to work and study along side Master We and his tea production crew, you can read more about our most recent trip in our new blog post.
Quote from Master Wei about the production season: