In Part 1 of this article, we looked into the work done by Oguri Tea Farm, a tea merchant in Makinohara, as well as into the method of brewing the most flavorful tea. In the latter half, we will be visiting Sugita Tea Farm, and hearing about their endeavors in growing organic tea.


35 years experience in tea farming at Makinohara Plateau, Sugita Tea Farm

Sugita Tea Farm, of Makinohara, Shizuoka, opened their tea field about 35 years ago. They began growing tea organically long before the government set sight on it (Note: Certification of organically grown products by the JAS began in August 2000). Currently, Sugita Tea Farm grows 4 varieties of teas: a type of organic black tea, as well as “Benifūki,” a different, conventionally grown black tea, and more kinds of green tea, “Yabukita” and “Tsuyuhikari”, and ”Okumidori" as a Tencha(the ingredients of Matcha).

Sugita Tea Farm seems to be growing more varieties then their four-member family could handle. It makes sense that therefore, around harvest season, they hire people in the area to work for them. Young, soon-to-be successors of a tea farm, as well as people looking to start a farm themselves, all gather in Sugita Tea Farm to absorb knowledge and gain experience.

“Before they decided to switch to tea farming, my father and grandfather handled building materials for a living, so we had access to heavy machines. We used them to break in the field in which we now grow organic tea plants. It wasn’t a field before that. We are still young as a farm, because we only began from my father’s generation,” says Mr. Sugita.

Mr. Sugita was in middle school when his father began the tea farm. His father is one of the few people in the association that preserves a tradition rarely seen these days - the art of hand-rolling tea.

Oguri Tea Farm, from Part 1 of this article, also originally grew the tea themselves, but after a certain period of time became busy with just handling the tea. They currently outsource the tea growing process by leasing their land to farmers. The Sugita family is one such farm, and has worked with Oguri Tea Farm from early into their history as a tea farm. They are currently working together towards a new tea business.


Organic tea by Sugita Tea Farm

Mr. Oguri and Mr. Sugita are, at present, growing organic black tea intended for exports. They decided to specialize in organic produce for this reason: the standards for chemical use is different for each country.

Upon asked about the difficulties of organic farming, Mr. Oguri commented:

“There are very few people that do organic farming here. It is almost impossible to be the only organic farm in an area that has a number of other farms that farm in the conventional manner. That is, if you spray pesticides in the farm next door, the wind carries it to the other farms in the area. In those cases, upon inspection, sometimes the tea leaves turn out with a chemical level that exceeds the standard.”

Organic farming also has a clear disadvantage in that it is difficult to organize the farms to keep their production system consistent.

“Sugita tea farm’s method utilizes nature,” Mr Oguri explains. “It is also notable that they don’t use machines much. One risk that comes with this method is that the flavor of the tea fluctuates. When we hit the jackpot, though, the flavor is beyond our expectations.”

Organic teas made in Makinohara are widely popular, and can even be bought in some high-end supermarkets across Japan. Tea made by Sugita Tea Farm is no exception.


The Chagusaba farming method - Bringing out the best in nature, and making the best tea

There is a traditional agricultural technique used in Shizuoka called “Chagusaba farming (Traditional tea-grass integrated system).” This method was certified as a GIAHS (Globally important Agricultural Heritage System) by the FAO in 2003. It uses the natural life cycle in the ecosystem to aid in the growth of crops. Specifically, the grass grown near the tea field is dried and used as a natural fertilizer.

Caption: Cut grass, saved to be used as mulch

Wild grass, including Sasa (running bamboo) and Susuki (Chinese Silvergrass) is cut, and dried into hay form, then strewn between the ridges in the tea fields. The hay prevents the growth of weeds, and improves the soil quality by adding nutrients to the soil upon decomposition.

Caption: Shown is an example of such a ridge at the base of the tea bushes. With organic farming, weeding between the ridges are a hassle as herbicides cannot be used

The Chagusaba farming method leads not only to better tea, but also better soil environment. We visited the field that utilizes this method, and were surprised by the soft bounce in the soil - there was a clear difference in soil softness compared to farms that conduct conventional farming.

Chagusaba, which literally means tea-grass area, is the name for the area where the grass is purposefully left to be grown. In this area, about 300 different types of wild plants grow, including plants endemic to the area, and even endangered species. Letting these plants grow also has the effect of protecting the fields from pesticides that come from elsewhere.

This method was a result of farmers putting in an effort to make better quality tea, but concurrently led to the protection of plants and animals in the area. Mr. Sugita utilizes this method to grow certain varieties of his tea.


Friend or foe? Whitebacked plant-hoppers (Unka)

Did you know that green tea and black tea are actually made from the same plant? I found out during this interview that the same tea variety can be made into both!

Tea varieties that are suited for black tea tends to be a bad fit for green tea, and vice versa. For example, “Benifūki” contains a lot of catechin, so becomes much too bitter in green tea form. However, this bitterness works to its advantage when it becomes black tea. “Benifūki” as black tea has a strong aroma and balanced astringency.

Caption: Different variety, different shape. To right: “Benifūki” Left: “Yabukita”

There is also a curious phehomenon. According to Mr. Sugita, “‘Yabukita,’ which is more suited for green tea, is not so great in black tea form.”

“However, this is only when made with the conventional farming method. ‘Yabukita’ grown organically is much better in terms of scent and quality,” he says.

Caption: Unka-sprouts, tinged red and curled up

This significant difference is caused by a small, white insect, the white backed plant-hopper (or Unka). The bug is a widely recognized pest in Japan, especially among rice farmers. With organic farming, however, they work to our advantage.

Mr. Oguri “Tea, like any other plant, releases a substance to protect itself when under attack or in danger. This makes the plant smell different, sweeter. That’s why, when you are picking the leaves, too, it smells nice.”

If you look closely at the organic tea field, you can find Unkas sucking on the tea leaves. The leaves that were sucked on draw a red tinge and release a sweet scent, so it aids in the making of quality, aromatic black tea.

Mr. Sugita “The color change is fine with black tea, but with green tea, we want to keep the green color, so [the method doesn’t work].”

It was surprising to find that some pests become beneficial depending on the type of crop that is grown.


Working together with nature - Organic farming methods

Mr. Sugita is in charge of about 10 to 15 tea fields. We visited one of them, a terraced field on the sides of a slope, where the "Yabukita" tea is grown organically. We went up a narrow path on a small pickup truck, went over a wild boar-proof fence, and arrived at the field overlooking the entire area.

It is the same field as the one noted above: the Sugita family opened it 35 years ago themselves.

“It seems that this area used to be a rice field,” says Mr. Sugita. “The soil in a rice field is mostly clay and does not drain well, so it’s not suitable for growing tea plants. So we changed it into a staircase shape to drain the water, and even brought over soil from the Makinohara plateau. The soil there is red and good for growing tea plants. Of course, once it was done, we didn’t have to repeat the process, but carrying the soil over probably took an unbelievable amount of work.”

They actually hadn’t planned to make their farm organic. However, a turning point came about 5 or 6 years into their tea farming experience. One day, they found a dead earthworm in their farm.

Mr. Sugita: “I thought, ‘It’s a waste that we are unnecessarily hurting wildlife, when we really should be working in harmony with the environment.’ We then decided to switch to organic farming.”

Upon a closer look, we were able to spot the unkas that we spoke of earlier, but found that overall, there weren’t too many bugs.

Mr Sugita: “There are some insects that prey on other bugs, so there is an overall balance. Of course, there is also the option of using chemicals to prevent diseases on the plants, but they grow fine without them. It’s been over 30 years since we planted the tea, and the environment has been maintained well, I think.”

It was the middle of summer when we visited the farm. We were greeted with a wide view, overlooking the entire area. The tea fields, extending all around us, were gleaming a beautiful bright green under strong beams of sunlight. 35 years had transformed the land into a perfectly balanced ecosystem. The air was tranquil, and I felt as if the plants and insects were at peace as well.

There is one problem that comes with this nature-friendly approach.

Mr. Sugita: “There are so many other fields that they can go to, but the wild boars choose to come to this one for some reason! It is probably because we don’t use chemical products, and there are more living creatures on this farm. The tea plants are planted in rows, but the boars ignore them and rush straight across!”


Working with nature year-round - The difficulties of tea making

We asked Mr. Sugita what the hardest part of making tea was.

Mr. Sugita: “We have to work with nature, so the growing conditions vary from year to year. The climate and temperature, for example, are never the same. The timing that the leaves sprout, the tenderness of the sprouts or stems, and the amount of moisture in the leaves are all different. If we want to sell them as products, they have to have a consistent quality too. We have to figure out what to do from scratch every year, which can be difficult.”

Mr Sugita’s passion for tea was clear in his comment: “Everything is regulated and adjusted towards the goal, which is to harvest the first flush tea in May.”

Of course, the harvest of first flush tea is not the end - as soon as the tea is picked, the cycle starts new, for next May. Soon after harvest, the fields are fertilized, pruned, weeded and protected, and the grass (cut and dried) is placed on the soil. The parts of the plant that are left after the harvest becomes the foundation for the next year’s batch of first flush tea, so extra care is taken to keep the plants healthy.


3 factors make for an infinite possibility for teas

We asked the Sugita family what they are looking to do in the future.

Mr. Sugita: “There are still more possibilities for tea. For example, Yabukita can be processed both into green tea and black tea. Tea variety, farming method, and processing method become factors that are multiplied to allow for the variations in tea. This is one reason why tea making is so interesting.

“I think there should be many kinds of tea. I do think we are one of the few that make so many different kinds as one farm, but I feel like having choices is a good thing. We want to collaborate with things other than tea. That way, we can enjoy a wider range of combinations,” says Mr. Sugita.

The next tea variety that they have their eyes on is “Koshun.” “Koshun” is originally a tea variety used in green tea, so they are planning to process it as black tea. According to Mr. Sugita, “Koshun” is, as black tea, a tea with a mellow, aromatic, almost milk tea-like flavor.


Makinohara Tea as a stepping stone for your personal tea experience

“Drinking tea together is a communication tool. It brings people together,” says Mr. Sugita. At home or at the workplace, wherever people meet, tea is a necessity. “Yabukita” is the tea variety most widely grown in Makinohara. It is the variety that comes up first when asked about the deep-steamed green tea made in Shizuoka. People have been drinking it for a long time, and about 72% of the green tea grown in Japan is “Yabukita” tea.

Mr. Sugita: “Yabukita" is a standard tea, but I hope that young people will hear more about other tea varieties, and become more interested in tea.”

What we, as FETC, would like to spread word about through this media is the way to enjoy tea, but in a mindful manner. You don’t necessarily need to have knowledge to brew yourself a great cup of tea. But the experience is most definitely different before and after you know about the various tea varieties, the characteristics of each, and the passion behind the tea. The context frees you and gives you confidence in your choices, leading to a tea drinking experience that is more personal and satisfying.

We would like to thank Oguri Tea Farm and Sugita Tea Farm both for the visit, and for the in-depth interview. As a fan, I am excited about what is on the agenda for these two ambitious farms!

December 25, 2020