Growing coffee in China’s tea country

Rob Schmitz Jan 10, 2011

Growing coffee in China’s tea country

Rob Schmitz Jan 10, 2011


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.

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