Farm visit: pictures, lots of work done, rotary sifters

Tons of work got done during the 3 weeks there, including:

  • Took down and partly processed 6 very large cypress trees above the tea field
  • Started new long-term compost pile
  • Planted several dozen new tea plants, mostly Y/Y cultivars
  • Lots of wood moving and splitting
  • Re-built the char pit with real firebrick, which should last forever
  • Several burns of the char pit.

Lots of thinking about how to make the process easier, mostly in the sifting-crushing-sorting.  Right now i am thinking about building a low-tech Rotary Sifter, something like this. Combined with some kind of crushing phase, with gravity to assist in moving char through the process, i think this would radically increase the amount of finished fine char per hour of work.

Update: it turns out that what i’d like to build is called a Trommel.

Farm visit fall 2012

I’ll be back on the island from August 24 – September 15 – to work on the farm, plant tea plants, split firewood, make compost, make biochar, and experiment with lots of cool stuff like making native bricks and larger and better biochar production techniques. I’ve also just bought a GoPro and Steadicam so i hope to make some videos about all of the above. Stay tuned!

More on Tea & Biochar in Sri Lanka

More about growing tea with biochar in Sri Lanka, from an eariler comment on this blog.

1. “Biochar: Can it put the tea industry back in the black?”, Dr. J.C. Krishnaratne,
In summary, it says that the Sri Lanka tea fields are in bad shape due to erosion and long-term overuse of chemical fertilizers, that biochar can and should help, and that char could be made out of the Gliricidia trees that are already quite widespread and grow well in that region.

2. A response to the above article by Hemal de Silva,
In summary, he says that while biochar is certainly good for tea soils and yields, the economic situation is more complicated, lack of re-investment money means biochar may not be sufficient to solve the industry’s money-losing problems, by itself. He suggests that looking at particular tree species, Pentadesma butyracea and Garcinia indica (Kokum) might provide a better economic result.

I was unaware of the economic picture and have never heard of these tree species, so it’s very interesting.

Biochar and Tea

I spent the month of September 2011 back on the farm, getting it into shape and making batches of biochar.  At the end of the month i took a truckload of the char down to Josiah’s biochar operation in Puna, where it was inoculated and ground up.  Back at the farm, the living char was spread all over, especially in the tea field.

To date, there has only been two studies of biochar on tea that i know of: some Japanese work back in 1997-2003, and my own postings on this blog.  Today, i heard of a third study: Using Biochar to Improve Soil Health and Leaf Production at Tea Plantations in Sri Lanka.  It’s early, but very positive, just as with the studies here and in Japan.

New document on Tea in Hawai’i

The full name of the document is “Specialty Crops for Pacific Island Agroforestry: Farm and Forestry Production and Marketing Profile for Tea (Camellia sinensis)”.  It’s online at (or directly to the PDF).

I contributed a bit to the document, with some reviewing, an illustration of using ginger as a mulch, and some notes on economics.  I’m quite happy with the result, which in 32 pages manages to describe a great deal of what someone needs to know to grow tea in Hawai’i, and process and market it.  There’s also some eye-opening statistics about tea in the rest of the world, where the cost of production can be 50x less.

A lot of this information is hard to come by unless you have one of the tea textbooks (the spotty Hajra book from India, or the wildly expensive Willson book from the UK), so it’s great that much of the important knowledge is now online for free.

Meanwhile, our tea continues to grow with astonishingly well.  I am baffled by the textbooks which say tea should be “pruned back once every 3–4 years to a height that is comfortable for plucking.” Our tea only takes a few months to go from flat hedges to a wild, tall, profusion of growth.  If this keeps up, it will need serious pruning twice a year just to keep it harvestable.  Perhaps more frequent and aggressive plucking would help keep it under control, but there there are many other things on the farm (and building the new house) which distract from harvesting.  One thing is for sure: the conditions here are very, very good for tea.  The soil (just compost, biochar, & mulching) and wet Hamakua weather seem to be perfect.


It’s been a long time since we’ve blogged about tea. The field has been growing exceedingly well, particular in the wet wet weather which stayed wet until mid-April this year. Tea loves rain! Our February 22 harvest, a full-bodied oolong, was announced on facebook and did well. The May 1 harvest experienced difficult conditions, surprisingly hot and dry, which sun-cooked the leaves even before processing. More recently, we did a harvest on May 21 which was made into two kinds of green tea: classic Chinese green, and my attempt at a Japanese green. The Chinese turned out very good. For the Japanese, we don’t have one of those heated tables that traditional rolling is done on, so i improvised. The result is promising – it does taste like sencha – but probably not yet good enough to sell. You can try some if you come by the farm.

Recent intern Alisha, picking leaves for the May 21 harvest made into green tea.

After the major pruning of 5/25, all the older plants are now hedges

Some young tea plants, freshly planted up the hillside. Recent intern Comus helped with much of the planting.

View of the lower field which is nearly all grown in, and now pruned into hedges

Note the pruning makes a lot of stick-ends, each of which should sprout multiple leaves next time, all at the same height for abundant and easy harvesting