Tea farmers feel ‘powerless’ in the face of climate change

A once-in-a-century drought in 2020 followed by torrential rain in 2021

has decimated Taiwan’s tea crop and left farmers scrambling.

One such farmer is 28-year-old Chien Shun-yih, whose tea fields in Taiwan’s southern Meishan township are weakening.

"Right, it's the climate. The weather is the hardest element to control in tea production. We can control other elements of the production process by using equipment, but we are powerless in the face of climate.”

Chien returned to run the family plantation after his father passed away four years ago and is determined to cope with the extreme conditions in any way he can.

"This sort of thing, the tea is growing here, and I live here as well, this land belongs to me. My upbringing relied on it, so I want to take good care of it as well and bring up the next generation of my family here.”

Tea has been grown in the mountains around Meishan since the 19th century,

when the island was part of China’s Qing dynasty.

Taiwan’s tea output does not come close to matching China’s or India’s,

but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality.

The high mountain premium Oolong variety is a speciality of the area.

But Chien estimates that he will only harvest 1,300 pounds of tea this year, half of last year’s crop, due to the drought and rain.

"Of course, it has an impact, it's a big difference. We tea pickers also make less money. When the harvest is small, then we also make less money."

But the extreme weather also brings another problem: pests that attack the young tea buds.

Lin Shiou-reui is a government researcher helping Meishan’s farmers.

"So actually, under this sort of climate change, the growth of tea trees will firstly be very limited and secondly it will lead to massive reproduction of pests, so all in all, the amount of leaves that tea trees produce will decrease. And then because the trees are weak, and with the additional onset of big numbers of parasites, if these factors aren't dealt with properly then this might even lead to some tea trees dying."

Some officials debate whether what is happening in Taiwan’s tea county is directly linked to climate change.

Chen Yung-ming, head of the Climate Change Division at Taiwan’s National Science and Technology Centre for Disaster Reduction, has said it’s not possible to blame the drought on climate change, though she believes the chance of continuous drought may increase.

Tsai Hsein-tsung, the director at Taiwan Executive Yuan Tea Research and Extension Station, disagrees.

"Tea is very sensitive, because during the 50 to 60 days of every growing season, the accumulated hydration and temperature as well as the amount of humidity in the air that the tea touches can influence its chemical makeup. Especially as tea is a habitual beverage, and when those elements are brewed into a cup of tea, will it taste good and have a fragrant quality? All of this is heavily influenced by climate change."

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