Imagine: Our own little spot for tea

Published 12:54 am Saturday, November 2, 2013

Nigel Melican has spent about three decades working as a tea consultant all over the world.

He’s worked in China. He’s taught farmers in Pakistan how to grow tea. He’s worked in situations so primitive in Ethiopia, there was no water at his “hotel.”

Name a province where tea has grown, and he’s been there.

But this past weekend, in Andalusia, Ala., he witnessed something he’d never seen done before: the beginning of mechanized tea planting.

Yes, you read that correctly. Tea plantings in Andalusia, Ala.

Melican is a consultant for Bob Sims, an Austin, Texas, entrepreneur and Alabama natives who believes we can grow tea in here. You can see the beginnings of that effort at the entrance to the industrial park.

Last weekend, as Melican and Sims prepared to put the first row of seedlings in the ground, Melican couldn’t stop talking about how much easier the work was with the help of a tractor and an auger.

In the places he normally works, he said, it would take a team of 10 to 12 men a full day to get a similar number of holes dug for planting.

The seeds were imported from ex-Soviet Georgia in 2011. It will be three years from now, in 2016, before Sims will know if this experiment worked.

If it does, he has big dreams.

He’d like to put in a processing plant. And he’d like to co-op with area farmers who could plant tea to diversify their current crops. His enthusiasm is contagious. He is already working with the ag program at Andalusia High School and has students involved in his project. Long-term, he envisions producing speciality loose-leaf teas that could retail for more than $100 a pound.

He laughs when he says that.

“I do realize that most Americans think tea bags grow on trees,” he laughed.

While Sims sees possibility for Alabama, Melican sees possibility for the world. In many of the developing nations in which he works, people are beginning to migrate to the cities, much as they did in the United States in the middle of the last century. The migration in, for instance, China, leaves work to be done in the fields and farmers worried about where they’ll find labor.

American ingenuity could help, he said.

And that’s why he posted on social media this week, “I’ve waited for 35 years for this,” in reference to the machinery used here last weekend. For American farmers, setting out plants by hand still looks rustic. To the world, digging holes with a tractor looks pretty progressive.

And that’s the beauty of this tea project. The outside-the-box thinking by these two men can change our community, and the world.

And that was an exciting story to write.