by Sally Colby

Lori Baker is an engineer by trade but wanted a career change. When she and her husband Bob were ready to pursue their dream of farming, they started with a somewhat unusual crop.

When the Bakers, both tea lovers, were in North Carolina, Bob came up with the idea of growing tea. They purchased 10 tea plants and planted them in two locations close to Baltimore, MD. “They lived through a couple of severe, hard winters,” said Lori Baker. “We thought if they could survive winter in Maryland, they were meant to be.”

The Bakers searched for a farm, found a 43-acre property and started BLTeas at Heron’s Meadow Farm in Woodbine, MD. “We settled in 2013 and in spring of 2014, we put 50 tea plants in the ground,” said Baker. “We knew the area had highly acidic soil, which the plants like, but we didn’t want to put 1,000 plants in and discover they wouldn’t grow well there.”

As they prepared the ground for more tea plants, the Bakers learned not all tea varieties are suitable for the Maryland climate. A nursery in North Carolina that specializes in camellias helped solve that problem. “They had lots of varieties of Camellia sinensis, or tea plant,” said Baker. “The owner told us which were the most cold-hardy, then we bought several varieties that season to figure out which would work well.” They settled on Sochi, which originates in Sochi, Russia, as the sole variety to grow.

Although the couple didn’t begin as experienced farmers, they were willing to learn. Baker said mastering the art of growing tea has been a series of lessons learned. One initial concept was setting up the growing area with hoops and row covers for cold protection. The second season, they put in 300 plants and placed row cover material over the plants. They soon realized there was no way to prevent the snow-laden row cover material from crushing the plants and lost one-third of that crop. The Bakers have since removed the row cover material but left the hoops in place to serve as markers.

Another year, they were working on numerous projects and couldn’t keep up with the weeds. “We weren’t harvesting yet because the plants were still young,” said Baker. “When we cleared the weeds in spring, the plants in the weedy areas remained protected from the cold.” Although the weeds helped protect the tea plants, Baker didn’t want to encourage excess weed growth that would eventually overtake the plants, so she’s careful to keep noxious weeds in check using organic methods.

The need for deer fence was another lesson. Baker said they put the first 50 plants in the ground and watched carefully to see if deer would bother them. At first, the deer left the plants alone but ate the leaves in winter. Well-established plants would grow back, but the deer bedded down in the field and crushed the young plants.

The Bakers are working toward creating their own cold-hardy variety of tea to stand up against the sometimes harsh Mid-Atlantic winters. Photo courtesy of BLTeas

The Bakers currently have 1,000 to 1,200 plants in the ground and will soon open a new field to expand with more plants. With the first planting, Baker was afraid to overwater – tea plans don’t like wet feet – but found she didn’t water enough. To encourage root development in the first young plants, the couple filled water barrels and used a generator to power a pump for hand-watering. They’ve since installed drip irrigation that uses water from a nearby pond. She said plants need water mostly when they’re first planted or during an extensive dry period.

Processing tea involves several steps depending on the desired end result. The process begins with picking the leaves and withering them on mesh trays. “The withering process allows some of the moisture to evaporate out of the leaf,” she said. “The leaves become more supple and droopy. The next phase varies depending on what we want to process.”

Baker compared tea leaf processing to what occurs in peeled apples exposed to air. “The longer tea leaves are exposed to air, the darker they get,” she explained. “Black tea is exposed the most – it has oxidized and turns darker.” The next phase is rolling and shaping. For now, Baker rolls leaves by hand because they aren’t yet harvesting enough for machine rolling. When leaves are placed in cheesecloth and rolled, cell membranes break and release chemicals that result in different flavors. “For black tea we roll for about 20 minutes then let it sit,” she said. “With green tea, we only roll for about 20 minutes.”

For green tea, after withering, the next step is a “kill green process” which stops oxidation. Leaves are heated to about 150º to 155º for a certain length of time. Diverse tea-producing areas around the world carry out this process differently: China pan fires leaves in a wok; Japanese tea processors use a steamer to stop the oxidation process.

Baker’s found there’s a lot of science behind getting tea flavors just right, and her engineering background has come in handy as she works through the concepts for making teas and creating blends. For example, black teas require more manipulation – after leaves are processed and have the desired flavor, they’re dried in an oven. White tea is the least processed tea – leaves are collected, withered a bit, then the oxidation process is stopped. Making oolong tea is a more complex process that involves withering leaves in the sunlight, which allows UV light to bring out other compounds in the leaves.

Although the Bakers purchased tea plants to get started, they have about 150 seedlings started from seeds from their own plants. “Our goal is plants that have the characteristics to thrive and survive our winters to cross-pollinate and grow to create our own varietal,” said Baker. “We don’t know yet how that’s going to work, but we’re excited to have the first seedlings started.” The seedlings will be grown indoors in pots for another year then planted outdoors in 2023.

A line of mature trees near the field of tea plants has proven to be a bonus. “Camellia likes shade,” said Baker. “The tea plants that are more shaded are growing better than those in full sun. We planted a few maple trees among the tea plants and we’re letting some other stray trees grow up to provide a little more shade.”

For more crop variety, the Bakers recently planted nut trees including pecan, hickory, chestnut, hazelnut, chinquapin and several walnut varieties. This season, Baker will start mapping out and establishing deer-resistant perennial beds for cut flowers. “My goal is to open the cut flower bed in 2023,” she said. “That gives me time to map out the ground and get some plants in the ground for next year.”

The Bakers sell tea directly from the farm store as well as online, and several area boutiques and restaurants feature BLTeas. Baker hosts blending workshops during which guests can create their own unique tea blends. “We try to promote the experience,” she said, adding that people have steeping and tea drinking rituals. “We want them to come out to the farm, sit on the patio, enjoy nature and relax with a good cup of tea.”