by Samantha Graves
Light of Day Organics is located in a wind corridor just west of Traverse City, MI, pushing this part of the typical Zone 5b or 6a region to Zones 3 or 4. That hasn’t stopped Angela Macke from growing Camellia sinensis, true tea plants, usually found in tropical or Zone 9 regions of the world. Moreover, the cardiac nurse turned farmer operates a fair trade, Certified Organic, and certified Biodynamic farm and facility, which sets her business apart from any other tea farm in North America.
Biodynamic is a farming methodology developed by Dr. Rudolf Steiner in the early part of the 1920s. With a focus on the connections between living things, including the farmer, livestock and plants grown, biodynamics is an ecologically integrative practice with added focus on the ethics and spiritual aspects of farming.
“We have 300 a people a day that want to experience tea plants. Light of Day is still the only Certified Organic and certified Demeter Biodynamic tea farm in North America. It’s so rare. And I like a challenge. I’m committed to continuing to develop innovative methods to grow this high demand specialty crop here,” said Macke.
“As a registered nurse, part of our your oath upon graduating is to ‘do no harm,’ but not having any business experience, it was even more compelling than ever. I wanted to ensure that every aspect of our business was conducted ethically, it can be verified, and in this way the ‘doubting Thomas’ can start believing again.”
Macke said the focus on transparency was especially for the benefit of those individuals who seek out tea for the health benefits. Green teas like shade-grown Matcha contains an impressive 1,384 O.R.A.C. units in a single gram, a measure of antioxidant potency in foods. To compare, most fruits contain between six and 60 O.R.A.C. units.
“There’s no room ever for ‘proprietary blend,’ on a label, because somebody somewhere out there is going to have an allergy to something and,” continued Macke, “you are serving to someone who trusts you. You are serving to the very vessel that houses one’s soul”.
In addition to the health benefits of tea, Macke said she has had to find her own balance in owning and operating a tea farm. For the past three years, the farm has operated entirely on a collection of three solar arrays at the farm. One of the ways Macke uses less energy is to dehydrate within a ventilated greenhouse. “I can put all my withering trays in there and dry the equivalent of six or seven wheelbarrows of botanicals overnight in that massive food dryer. It’s such a time saver.”
In an average year, Light of Day grows 57 percent of the botanicals used to make her signature tea blends. She said fortunately, the majority of these plants become ready for harvest at regular intervals, spreading out the work of harvest over the entire season. “The staggered harvest is intentional. It makes for a beautiful landscape, and very colorful, but so functional, too; when you break up (the harvest) like that.”
It’s apparent in everything Macke grows from the greenhouse plants down to the lawn surrounding the tasting room; “My husband thought I was insane when I was collecting dandelion seed to propagate. As a ground cover, I use alfalfa, clover, sorghum, dandelion, annual perennial rye and buckwheat. Additionally, the staggered bloom time of these plants means precious pollinator bees have a steady source of nectar.
Staggering the harvests leaves little time for blending during peak season for farm and retail shop visitors, so Macke created a “tea vault” — it stays a constant 50 degrees — to store her dried botanicals until the fall and winter months, when there is time to sort, blend and package.
Ensuring Quality at Every Step
One tea Macke does import, Matcha, has one distinct benefit over the plants grown in Michigan. “The harvest is opposite of us. We’re harvesting in March like the rest of the world of tea, but the Matcha is harvested in October. Just when we’re about to run out and our customers are panicking. Here comes our bonus crop.”
Macke said importing Matcha and maintaining the quality of the product meant careful observation of the process from point of origin, to refrigerated shipping, to the FDA inspection facility at the port in Boston, to the processing facility in New York, and arrival at the farm.
“You need a compounding pharmacy type environment that’s free of oxygen,” said Macke. “The Matcha goes into a hopper inside an air-tight enclosure and is ground down 50 times smaller than talcum powder, then goes right into our tins or 200g bags and is flash-frozen.”
To preserve the quality of the Matcha, it must remain at lower temperatures throughout the entire process. “It’s a super fine particulate, so it’s going to oxidize faster,” said Macke. Upon arrival at the farm, “Every batch is tested for radiation and pesticide residue, so if a customer asks, I can send third party verification. They do it at the lab, but I do it again. I send it to a lab in Illinois to have another set of testing. Just in case.”
Easing the challenges of handling an import involved partnering with other farmers or manufacturers. “Anything I have to import, like ginger or licorice root, I’ll partner with others. We’ll take turns, so you have the same set of farmers that you work with and those processors that are certified organic,” but Macke went on to explain that the burden of handling the import is spread over the group, rather than the individual.
Light of Day Tea has steadily grown 19 percent each year since its inception just over a decade ago. When asked what she would do differently if she could do it all over again, Macke had a surprising initial response, “I wouldn’t try to grow tea in Michigan.”
She went on to explain that when catastrophe hits, like last winter when a hoop house sheltering her tea plants blew down twice in 10 weeks time, the loss represents a gut-wrenching blow to profitability and enthusiasm about farming.
That said; Macke does grow tea and she values food security. “We have to learn how to grow food,” she said. “You go a grocery store and hardly any of it’s local. The tea is sort of the catalyst. If I can grow tea, I can grow moringa berry, I can grow pineapple, figs, olives; I can grow any of those crops.” (And she is). “We got the equivalent of two cans of olives last year, but it’s cool that we grew them in the hoop house. I love the diversification.”
“I’m committed,” Macke said. “For as along as I live, I’ll be working on making the situation better, but I can’t change these zones.” She hopes challenges like the mid-winter loss of a hoop house will help her discover more efficient and effective ways to protect her crops.