Growing coffee in China's tea country

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    A few years ago, 26-year-old farmer Yan Ciyong realized all his neighbors were making more money growing coffee than tea. Yan's salary this year was $15,000 USD, around six times the average Chinese salary. He says he made a fraction of that growing tea and corn.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    The Pu'er Region of Southwestern China is an ideal latitude and altitude for growing tea, but it's also the most ideal place in China for growing coffee. The Tropic of Cancer slices through this region, putting it at the same latitude as Central Mexico. Nearly all of China's coffee is produced in this region.

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    In November, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz came to Pu'er to announce the company would set up its first Chinese coffee farm here. Up to now, most farmers in the region have been selling their beans to a local collective at market price. In return, the collective sells the beans to companies like Nestle.

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    Won't this coffee revolution impact the local tea trade? Dong Jiwen owns a tea plantation in Pu'er. Coffee doesn't scare him. He says the Chinese have sipped tea for two thousand years, and they'll do so for at least two thousand more.

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    But not if Xu Meiling has anything to do with it. The 44-year-old has worked her whole life on a tea plantation. She says it's common practice for tea plantation bosses to take advantage of the region's impoverished and uneducated farmers by luring them to their plantations with promises of high salaries, only to trick them into signing 30-year work contracts for wages they can barely live on. That's what happened to her.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    Mrs. Xu rakes coffee on a slab outside her tea plantation home. She started growing coffee five years ago to, as she puts it, "gain more freedom." She sells the beans for the market price to a local collective. In comparison, she makes a fraction of the full price of tea she grows for her tea plantation boss. She's used the extra money growing coffee to save up for her son's education.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    Whether or not this 'coffee revolution' will cut into the profits for tea plantation bosses like Dong Jiwen is unclear. Here he is pictured in front of his home on his plantation.

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    This coffee boom is certainly keeping Liao Xiugui busy, though. The 70-year-old was one of the first farmers in China to grow coffee. These days, he receives multiple visits a week from farmers who want to learn how to grow this lucrative new crop. Unlike his farmers-in-training, Liao drinks two cups of coffee a day. He says he prefers it to tea.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    Farmer Zi Shaofang has big dreams, too. The 39-year-old is looking forward to the day when Starbucks arrives. He says he'd like to improve the quality of his beans, but he's unsure how to do so. He's heard that Starbucks has high demands for their coffee; requirements like growing grass alongside the trees and growing bigger trees to provide shade. He says most farmers are reluctant to do that for fear of cutting into their profits, but if he can make more money with these practices, he says he's more than willing to try.

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace

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    Coffee is dried by the tropical sun of Pu'er. Many farmers in Pu'er expressed their hopes that someday the region will have its own indigenous brand. Many already have a name for it: Simao Coffee. This region used to be called Simao before the local government changed its name three years ago to Pu'er to highlight the area's tea trade. Will the name last?

    - Rob Schmitz/Marketplace


Kai Ryssdal: Way out in the middle of almost nowhere in southwest China, farmers have been growing tea for thousands of years. Not just any tea, but a variety known as Pu'er, one of China's most famous teas. But it's the other morning drink that's on the rise. Coffee consumption in China is growing about 25 percent a year. Starbucks has opened 400 stores in China in the past decade.

Our China Correspondent Rob Schmitz reports tea farmers are setting their sights on the bean.

Sounds of coffee beans being raked

Rob Schmitz: Xu Meiling pushes a wooden rake through a ton of coffee beans. They dry in the sun on a concrete slab in front of her tiny shack of a home in this tropical valley on the Chinese border with Burma. She began growing coffee five years ago, but she's never entertained the thought of drinking it.

Xu Meiling: It's way too expensive! I've heard it tastes bitter. So bitter that you have to add sugar. I have no idea how it tastes, and I don't want to taste it.

How's that for a ringing endorsement? The surly 44 year-old is better at business than PR. Like nearly everyone in this region, she's grown tea her whole life. But then she figured out she could make twice as much growing coffee. China's increasingly on-the-go urban population means that demand for coffee in the home of the world's oldest tea culture is higher than ever.

More and more farmers in this tea-growing region are making the pilgrimage along this treacherous jungle road to the plantation of Liao Xiugui. The short, mild-mannered farmer lives in this remote lush valley of bamboo groves surrounded by steep hillsides of coffee trees. The 70-year-old hermit is the Jedi Master of coffee growing in China.

Liao Xiugui: Lately I've had a lot of visitors. Farmers from all over the place are asking me to teach them how to grow coffee. They invite me to come to their farms, but I'm too old for that. I teach them here.

A farmer-in-training picks bright red beans nearby. In an international competition a few years ago, coffee from this region beat out Colombian coffee in quality. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz came here last month to announce the company would locate its first Chinese coffee farm in this region. Liao's excited, but he's looking even further ahead.

Liao: It's a pity that we have to sell our coffee to other brands. The reason we've worked with companies like Nestle and Starbucks here is to learn their skills, management and brand building. One day, we'll have our own famous brand; Americans will even know who we are.

With all these converts to coffee in the tea industry's backyard, you'd think that tea companies would feel under siege.

As Shen Youcai pours me a cup of tea at his company's plantation, his hand is not shaking. Shen points out the growing seasons for tea and coffee are different. This allows farmers to harvest both without a problem. Plus, says Shen, a beverage that's synonymous with thousands of years of Chinese culture is not likely to be supplanted by this muddy-looking foreign beverage.

Shen Youcai: Coffee is just a fad in China. In five or 10 years, everyone here will go back to growing tea. There's no way we feel threatened.

But Xu Meiling, the farmer who's switched to coffee, says tea companies should take heed. She and other farmers here say it's common practice for big tea companies to take advantage of the region's impoverished and uneducated farmers by luring them to their plantations with promises of high salaries, only to trick them into signing 30-year contracts for wages they can barely live on.

Xu: That's why I started growing coffee. I control the price. The price of tea is going up, but we continue to make around an eighth of what it's worth. The plantation boss takes the rest. If we ask for a raise, he'll fire us.

No such raw deal growing coffee. Not yet at least. She says growing coffee gives her more freedom. Her plan is to leave the tea plantation once she's saved enough from selling her coffee. And maybe one day, she says, she'll even try a cup.

In Pu'er, China, I'm Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: Rob blogs about China for us as well. His Chinopoly blog has more on the disparities between plantation owners and farmers and a slideshow of coffee and tea plantations there.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.


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