Lincoln County specialty tea farm finds niche for their product worldwide
LINCOLN COUNTY, Miss. (WLBT) - Like any other real success, the Great Mississippi Tea Company has a great story.
“We went on eBay and bought three plants and said, ‘If one is alive at the end of summer, we’ll kind of look at this,’” said owner and founder Jason McDonald.
The Great Mississippi Tea Company was created after McDonald’s timber crop was wiped out during Hurricane Katrina. It took him a few years to figure out what to do next, but he knew he wanted a crop he could raise that was sustainable.
It wasn’t quite that simple, but when he tried some tea grown in Charleston, South Carolina, McDonald did some research and he and his partner, Timothy Gipson found that tea was the perfect crop for the southwest Mississippi climate and as they’ve raised the crop, they’ve seen a definite niche for their product.
And after all, given some of the options, tea was the best idea.
“We didn’t want to be cattle farmers because cows get out at 4 o’clock in the morning when it’s 20 degrees,” McDonald said with a laugh.
Gipson deals with the hands-on parts of the job, and he said it fits him in ways other jobs definitely haven’t.
“Plucking the tea and doing the field work and everything else, that’s what I love to do. I hate being stuck behind a desk all day," he said.
Great Mississippi Tea Company has four kinds of teas, Gipson said, indicating four cups on the table, holding four colors, from light to dark.
“The green, which is the Mississippi Queen; the yellow, which is Mississippi Sunshine; the oolong, which is Delta Oolong, and Black Magnolia which is our black tea,” he said.
And after only seven years and five crops, Gipson and McDonald are worldwide.
“Someone called me from Aruba and said, ‘You’re on the front page of the paper here!’” McDonald said.
But it’s still a little surreal too.
“To know that there’s someone in another country who’s tasting our tea and saying, ‘I like that and I want more of it.’ That’s a big deal,” Gipson said.
There’s a definite niche in the market for specialty teas, which are different than commodity teas, the category that some brand names such as Lipton fall into.
“This is specialty tea, so it’s likened to craft beers, single estate wines -- that’s the type of market that people are wanting. They’re wanting to know the farmer, they’re wanting connectivity, they’re wanting the story and the experience," McDonald said. "It really appeals to millenials because, while they don’t have the money for a new Lexus or Mercedes, this is an everyday luxury.”
Commodity teas are worth about a dollar a pound, according to McDonald. Specialty teas can be worth as much as $400 a pound.
At Great Mississippi Tea Company, five years of crops are growing. While they reserve the right to use herbicides if they absolutely have to, they don’t use them under most circumstances.
They’re less like a timber crop, which must be harvested and then replanted, and more like an orchard -- once the plants are planted, they produce a crop every year.
There’s a bigger purpose, though. It’s not just about what Gipson and McDonald can do for themselves.
“If you just have an acre of tea, a family farm becomes viable again," McDonald said. "That’s really what drives me is creating a model to keep small farms in business.”
You can visit the their website HERE.
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