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ITO EN and the Dying Breed of Japanese Tea Farms

Yasuhisa Horiguchi, the owner of Horiguchi Seicha, tends to his tea leaves

The next time you sip a deliciously soothing cup of green tea, consider this: The tea leaves were likely tended to by a small family farm.

At least, that’s the case for the majority of green tea grown in Japan, like that produced by the teamakers of ITO EN, parent company of TEAS’ TEA, Matcha LOVE and Oi Ocha.

“Green tea farms, or gardens, have been a vital part of the country’s social, economic and cultural fabric for more than eight centuries,” said Rona Tison, Executive Vice President of Corporate Relations & PR for ITO EN. “The countryside surrounding the villages like Kitsuki, Usuki and Usa are brimming with rows of vibrant, perfectly-pruned green tea bushes covering picturesque rolling hills dotted by warm, natural hot springs.”

As Japanese farmers retire, what happens to the acres of green tea gardens?

As Farmers Retire, Who Takes Their Place?

You’d hope this picturesque scene would last a lifetime, but sadly, it’s under threat. A retiring generation of aging tea growers and lack of young farmers to take their place has led to a boom in abandoned, unusable tea fields across Japan.

“The average age of Japanese farmers is now 65, and while tea farms were traditionally passed to younger generations, the allure of modern careers in technology and marketing means fewer young farmers are entering the trade,” Tison said. “Once a field goes untended, it is nearly impossible to restore due to cost, so these lands go wild.”

Enter the Tea-Producing Region Development Program, ITO EN’s passion project to preserve Japan’s green tea culture. By partnering with regional farmers and governments, the brand has earmarked nearly 2,500 acres in Japan for tea plantations as of 2016 — mostly to revitalize aging farms and inject new interest among younger crowds through job opportunities.

From Veggie Farms to Tea Gardens

Such support has helped farmers like one from Miyazaki Prefecture, who did not have a successor but wanted to farm green tea on land that had previously been used for vegetables and as pasture.

Through the preservation program, he transformed his land into a 250-acre tea plantation over five years. ITO EN then purchased his entire harvest — so the fruits of one farmer’s labor might actually be in your next bottle of refreshing green tea.

ITO EN teas are available in select stores across the country. Just call your store to see if you can find them near you.