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Sakuma Brothers Farms seeks perfect cup of tea

Jan 9th, 2013 | Category: Community, Farms

Tea samples, research at Jan. 12 presentation

by Samantha Schuller

Sakuma Brothers Farms has been growing berries in the Northwest since 1915. Home to acres and acres of strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries, as well as apples, the Burlington farm is also growing tea plants, Camellia sinensis.

The hardy evergreen tea shrub is, just as it sounds, related to the flowering camellia bush you might recognize from the garden. “Don’t try making tea from the landscaping around Red Robin, though,” joked Richard Sakuma, whose two acres of tea plants are overwintering with dark, glossy leaves.

Richard Sakuma looks at his overwintering tea plants. PHOTO BY SAMANTHA SCHULLER

In the spring, Sakuma will prune the plants back to encourage fresh growth and then harvest the new, tender leaves that appear around June. Depending on how those leaves are processed, they will produce white, green, oolong, or black tea. “We make white tea by sun-drying the leaves,” Sakuma explained, but darker teas require hand-rolling, fermenting, and drying.

Sakuma began his trials with tea in 1997, after being approached by tea experts John Vendelande and Rob Miller of Oregon. They proposed tea as a new alternative crop for the Skagit Valley after harsh winters frustrated their efforts cultivating it in the Willamette Valley. “They envisioned the Skagit Valley as the Napa Valley of tea,” Sakuma said. He signed on as a grower-cooperator, agreeing to trial multiple varieties of the tea plant.

Most varieties of tea like tropical or sub-tropical weather, but Sakuma’s plants, which are not yet available commercially, are mostly adapted to our climate. The record snowfall of 2008 revealed which types weren’t hardy enough. “We lost more than half of the varieties in the freeze,” he remembered. “In the end, it was a success for the trial, but at the time, it was a hard hit.”

These days, Sakuma is closely tracking harvest dates, processing methods, and public tasting comments to improve his processing techniques. “Developing great tea is like making great wine. You’re producing an agricultural product, refining it, and presenting it to different palates with different preferences. It’s hard to judge your own product, but I think I have a good feel for the results of what I’m doing now,” he said.

White tea at the Sakuma Brothers farm stand in Bow regularly sells out each season, and other retailers now carry the tea in blends. The tea is available for purchase from their online market store, as well as at PCC Markets throughout King County.

“I’m looking at growing herbs for blends next,” Sakuma said. “Lemon balm, chamomile, lavender, nettle—I can grow all the things I’d need to make great northwest blends and stretch our tea production. It seems that public demand for tea has gone up in recent years, and we’d like to be able to meet more of it.”

On Saturday, Jan. 12, Sakuma will present “Growing Tea in the Valley” at Christianson’s Nursery in Mount Vernon. He will  provide sampling tastes and an update about his growing trials, techniques and products. Reservations are required, and the cost is $5 per person. To register, call (360) 466-3821 or visit www.christiansonsnursery.com.

The Sakuma Brothers Farms stand is located at 17790 Cook Road in Burlington. For more information about the farm and their online shop, see their website at www.sakumabros.com.

Published in the January 2013 issue of Grow Northwest

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