Today, we share with you our interview with Yancy Lever, an American tea farmer who is residing in Otoyo Village, Kochi Prefecture. Yancy is relatively new to the world of Japanese tea with three tea harvest seasons under his belt, but during this short time, he has helped revive the rural mountain village of Otoyo as well as Aruse (Tokushima Prefecture) where his tea farm is located. He has exciting projects planned at his home base in Japan with his partner and wife Azusa-san and growing family. Please enjoy this interview as he shares with us his story of becoming a tea farmer!
Moé: First, I would like to start by thanking you for taking the time today to do this interview with us. I know that Ian-san (Ian Chun) already interviewed you via Instagram a year or so ago, so there may be some overlap between the questions but I thought it would be nice to have an interview from a tea farmer like yourself (i.e., non-Japanese) in a blogpost form so that people could have access to it in written form. So, you are originally from the US, is that correct?
Yancy: Yes, I grew up in Washington State, across the water from Seattle. And before I moved to Japan, I was living in Colorado for about four years.
Moé: Well, I guess I will dive right in to ask --- I am curious to hear your story with respect to how you ended up as a tea farmer in Japan?
Yancy: In 2015, I went backpacking, just traveling. I went down to Mexico and I didn’t have much of a plan. And I ended up traveling with three people from different parts of the world. And one of those girls was a Japanese girl. And so, eventually we ended up traveling together down to Ecuador for seven months. And basically, we fell in love. I first went back to the States because I spent all of my money traveling. I worked for about three months and then I moved to Japan. And Japan wasn’t really anything I had thought of before, I was mostly interested in budget traveling and cheap traveling. I didn’t know anything about Japan but my girlfriend at the time was just telling me she had a guesthouse in the mountains and was rafting. So I just came here and then ended up working for a tea farmer doing harvesting and tea trimming and some grasscut work. I didn’t have any other real job. I was just doing part-time work… hmm, do you speak Japanese?
Moé: Yes... Although I'm afraid it’s rusty, especially now with Covid and being in France without having many Japanese connections in my vicinity. But after all, I am Japanese.
Yancy: Sometimes, I don’t know. I don’t just speak English.
Moé: Oh, you can mix the language if that helps. I code mix all of the time.
Yancy: Great, I was going to say arubaito (part-time). Anyhow, I was just working for this tea farmer. And there’s not a lot of young people where I live (*Since there are not many young people in Otoyo, a young man is about 65 years old). So I kind of just became this go-to guy when they wanted someone to come help out on the farm. And he just took me down to this other farm that had been abandoned for about three years and said,
“Yeah, you need a job! So if you want, you can cut this tea down and it will come back. And then, you can start farming on this property.”
At the time, there was a woman living in the house on the property but she doesn’t live there anymore so it is an akiya (abandoned house). So anyways, I didn’t have any other super important things to do so I cut the tea down really short and then it just came back over the next year. That is, I could harvest the following year.
Moé: Not bad!
Yancy: So I received that farm and then another farm in which the people had been running it until they decided they don’t want to do it anymore. So the second tea farm was in a lot better condition. Last year my harvest was a larger quantity.
Moé: So you have been receiving these tea farms that have been abandoned. And you are in Otoya village, Kochi Prefecture?
Yancy: No, Otoyo.
Moé: Pardon, Otoyo. I am not familiar with that particular region.
Yancy: Have you been in Shikoku (One of the five main islands in Japan)?
Moé: Yes, well, only for short trips. I’ve been in Ehime Prefecture which was mainly to ride the Shimanami Kaido bike path and I also spent a week or so in a rural village called Hoichi in Tokushima Prefecture to help out at a rural community theater event.
Yancy: Oh! So my farm is just on the border between the Prefectures Kochi and Tokushima. Actually my farm is in Tokushima.
Moé: I see, and may I ask whether all of these interactions are happening in Japanese?
Yancy: Yeah, pretty much. My Japanese isn’t so great. Still, I have gotten a lot better. I’ve picked it up. So, I just started farming tea. And pretty much watching what everyone else does. And then doing the same thing. I trim my tea twice a year and then I only do one harvest.
Moé: So just the ichibancha (first flush) harvest?
Moé: And did you have interest in Japanese tea prior to moving to Kochi? Or was it something you sort of fell into?
Yancy: This was just something I fell into. I think maybe before I moved to Japan, I don’t know if I had ever drank green tea [laughter]. You know, I didn’t move with some sort of tea passion, not at all. I just liked the work. I liked the people doing the work. It was something to do, it was interesting. And it has been fun and fulfilling to build this pretty small tea business with my wife.
Moé: Very neat, I noticed you are pretty new to the Yunomi site. Could you remind me how long you have been tea farming?
Yancy: For about four years and I have done three tea harvests. This is maybe the first year, or perhaps the second year that I’ve started selling tea on Yunomi.
Moé: We have not interviewed a non-Japanese tea farmer before... Could you share with us some of the challenges that you have encountered, if any?
Yancy: Like from being a foreigner?
Moé: It could be yes, from being a foreigner. But also I would be open to hear about any additional challenges that a new tea farmer could face.
Yancy: For me, the challenge in tea farming is making money [laughter]. So, most small tea farms process tea at their own factory. They have a factory close to their farm or one that is their own. But I don’t have all the tea factory equipment. And I don’t own a tea factory. So I end up paying a big tea factory that processes many small tea farmers’ teas. I end up spending about a third of what all the tea is worth to the factory. And then another third goes into fertilizer, all the arubaito people (part-time workers), and the packaging. I do kind of nice packaging… it’s got a zip seal and thicker package. Once all the money goes into the business, it’s hard to make very much. And then selling the tea is actually also kind of challenging in Japan.
Check out Yancha's nice tea packaging!
Moé: I imagine…
Yancy: I sell tea at a farmer’s market down in Kochi. So, there are instances where I do sell a lot of tea, but it’s hard. And it takes a lot of time. I would guess I make maybe 500yen (about $4.40) an hour or less when it’s all been done. But I guess if it wasn’t that way, then people wouldn’t be giving away tea farms [laughter]. If you are in Kyoto or have a bigger farm, I would imagine it’s easier. Some tea farmers have a lot better system, a more profitable system in comparison to what I have here. And finding workers is hard, too. There’s not many young people. The older people here are pretty busy doing their own thing. They have their own farms. So they aren’t really interested in coming to my farm to trim tea, although they will come to my farm if I ask them to help out.
Yancy selling his teas at the Kochi farmer's market (Nichi yo ichi) on Sunday. October 24, 2020.
Moé: So, these would be challenges that come with living in rural Japan, correct?
Yancy: Yes. But I guess kind of a good point about being a foreigner though, is maybe that it’s easier to sell tea. Because I catch people’s attention. You know, I am the only white guy that is selling anything. There’s one other foreigner that has a vegetable stand but it’s a really big Sunday market and people are walking past me and they look up at me and go,
“What!? A white guy is selling tea???” and then they always ask me,
“Are you growing this tea?”
And I tell them, “Yes, I am a tea farmer.”
Their response is along the lines of, “What!?!?!, a tea farmer!?” (i.e., in astonishment).
And that way, it makes it easier for me to sell tea.
Moé: I can almost visualize the scenery [laughter]... but they probably just want to support you or they are simply curious to try your teas!
Zoom world snapshot - While Covid has made travel more challenging, we are also grateful we can interview our tea farmers in this type of format. This interview has inspired me to visit Yancy’s tea village and future guesthouse. Hopefully, I can make it there in person in the near future!
Moé [continued]: I know that there are traditional folk teas in the Shikoku area. Like the goishicha, although unfortunately, I have not tried this tea yet.
Yancy: Actually, the goishicha is from where I live. From Otoyo Village. The main goishicha farm is actually just down the road from me...
Moé: Oh, that is very neat! But you just make the typical Japanese tea like sencha and hojicha? Not the goishicha?
Yancy: I haven’t done fermented teas. So I do sencha. The sencha that has all the stem material as well. Then, I do the tokusen sencha (premium sencha Yabukita cultivar), which has the smaller stems sorted out. And when I get the bags of stem tea, I make hojicha from that. I was also buying bancha from the farmer that I was working for and making hojicha and making a profit from that. And I have received pretty good reviews of my hojicha.
Moé: So would you say that your hojicha is the tea that you would recommend to the customers at Yunomi?
Yancy: I guess I wouldn’t really know... But my hojicha is unique because I roast it on a “baisenki” (roasting machine). And I do it over charcoal that I made. So I made my own charcoal and then I just have a rotisserie, I think it’s called a baisenki. And I turn it by hand, and it’s all done by feel. There’s two holes on each end and then when the smoke starts to come out a little bit, I usually wait about 2-3 minutes and take it out. And then I will do another batch. So it’s just like a slow roasted hojicha. I think what I sent to Ian was a lighter roast. So I always get really good reviews on the hojicha and it’s kind of unique because I am making it by hand, and it’s tasty. I think it always changes a little bit, too. Sometimes, I make it from the ”kuki” (stems) and then sometimes I make it from “bancha”. And then, if I don’t sell all of my sencha this year, then I will turn this year’s sencha into a hojicha.
Moé: How long does the roasting process take you, when you are roasting it by hand?
Yancy: I can do about 500g in one time. Usually it’s like 13 minutes when I am timing it. To do 500g and then I pour it into a container. And then I put another 500g in. And I am always doing this on a rainy day. If I can’t work, if I can’t do anything on the farm, or my work gets cancelled for rain a lot of the time. So usually, it’s during the rainy season. I tell myself, okay, I have a day. I can sit at home. So I am going to turn this rotisserie over charcoal, listen to music and make hojicha today [laughter]. I usually spend a day making hojicha. It takes me a total of 5-6 hours and I usually only do 4-6kg batches. It’s not a lot. And then, I usually sell the hojicha pretty quickly and then I will need to make more.
Future of Yancha - Guest House Revolving around Tea
Moé: So you mentioned this challenge of making a profit from tea. Do you envision yourself continuing tea farming in the future?
Yancy: Yeah, I am going to keep doing tea and farming tea. So, I mentioned before we were running a guest house out of the house we are living in. And we shut down the guest house about two years ago. I think for two years we haven’t taken any customers, just because we have two daughters now. The way we have it set up is that right now, I am in a tatami room [Yancy shows me the space around him], this used to be the guest house side. It’s a “kominka”, a really old house. It had a grass roof on it when I bought it. It was a really good setup for two people, a couple or a single person to have a guest house. But when you have two daughters, we just got too busy. I’m working and then after we pick-up the kids from hoikuen (kindergarten) it’s time for dinner and it just gets too noisy. It’s noisy, and so we haven’t been running the guest house for that reason. But we recently found a new house that’s just down the road. So we are going to open the guest house back up and we are also working on some other small business plans that kind of all fits into tea. I want to do bike tours in Otoyo.
Moé: Oh, bike tours and tea! That would definitely make me want to visit…
Yancy: Yes, we have all these beautiful scenic mountain roads with very little traffic. And we are working on opening a bike touring business and then reopening this guest house. That makes selling tea a lot easier if you have other customers coming through your business. Whenever we were doing the guest house, I would be sitting in the “irori” (traditional Japanese sunken hearth) room chatting with customers, drinking tea. And almost always sell a couple bags of tea. So I will keep trying for a little while.
Moé: That sounds like an exciting plan. So if you had a vision of yourself in 5 or 10 years, would you say it would revolve around this guest house but that tea farming would kind of be the central component?
Yancy: The guest house, bike touring business, and also farming and selling tea. I like doing my own work when I can. I was enjoying that for about the first 3-4 years that I lived in Japan, I was just kind of doing different handyman things, grass cutting, just helping out the people in my village. And then just a little over a year ago, I ended up starting work for a construction company. But you know, I have different plans. So my 5 year plan doesn’t involve working for a construction company [laughter].
Soba, Yuzu, Shumi at Yancha
Soba flowers in full bloom
Moé: Shifting gears from future visions to I guess current activities in your day-to-day life, I saw that you also do non-related tea products on your farm. Like soba and yuzu?
Yancy: Yep! So we grow soba, it’s kind of just a nice cover crop to plant in the summertime. It just grows and it has pretty beautiful flowers, and then we harvest the seeds in the fall. We cut down all of the plants and hang them and dry them. Towards the end of December, I will shake all of the seeds off the stalks and then I have a mill for milling the soba, and we will have toshikoshi soba! (*Soba noodles that are specifically consumed on New Year’s Eve to wish for longevity and health for the coming year).
Moé: Very cool, so you make your own soba noodles?
Yancy: Well, we are pretty bad at actually making the noodles… We make our own sobako (buckwheat flour) and use it to make pancakes and such but we are very bad at making the noodles [laughter]. And then the house came with some yuzu lemon trees, 6-7 trees. I planted about 10 more and then I think 8, or 6 of them died… because I put too much fertilizer.
Yuzu harvesting and work with one of his daughters, November 2nd, 2020.
Moé: Oh no… But Shikoku must be a great place for citrus trees. Well, we as Japanese know that Ehime Prefecture is very well known for their mikans for example.
Yancy: Yes, we have lots of mikans and different kinds of citrus.
Moé: So, would you say that these are all side projects around tea?
Yancy: They are just “Shumi” (hobbies).
Moé: [Laughter] Okay. Well, small delights are always nice to maintain in one’s everyday life.
Yancy: Just like we have chickens. They just recently started laying eggs. I got them last February, I think. I was thinking, I am just going to eat these chickens. And then I came home four days later and we had like four eggs and chicken poop [laughter]. We’ve been doing blueberries, too. Right now we have 7 blueberry plants planted that we started doing about three years ago and we have 8 more in pots right outside here that we have to plant in a month or so. And that’s kind of also potentially something we can tie into the guest house. People pay for mikan-picking, apple-picking, pumpkin picking etc…so that could just be a small thing we can do in the future. So maybe we can have people go out in the morning and pick our blueberries. But really, it’s just a hobby. All my farming projects are just hobbies except tea. I want to make money with tea. Everything else is just a hobby.
Climate Change & Aruse (Tea Village)
Moé: So in our tea farmer interviews through Yunomi, we have been inquiring about the effects of climate change on tea farming. I know that you have been tea farming for a shorter period of time but I was curious to ask whether you have noticed any influences of climate change on tea farming on a day-to-day basis, or whether this is a topic that you consider as a tea farmer?
Yancy: I wouldn’t actually know anything about that. I haven’t been doing it long enough. And I think nobody has really ever mentioned it to me. You know, all the other tea farmers. Where my tea farm is, it’s a tea village. Almost everyone has, you know, some small or more larger tea farm. But no one has mentioned anything to me about climate change. We did have a problem two years ago, in the spring. Where the new May came out. The tea started growing for ichibancha. And then we had one night of “shimo” (frost) and then, “shimo yaketa”, so the frost burned. My farm was pretty lucky because my tea farm is located lower in the village. So actually, it wasn’t so bad for me. But a lot of the other tea farmers were obtaining about ½ of their normal take/crop.
Moé: And I guess this was because where your tea farm is located (Aruse, Tokushima Prefecture) frost is not common, correct? Because I’ve observed that perhaps in frost prone tea farms you see the frost prevention fans. So this must have been an atypical year?
Yancy: Yeah, it was just kind of odd. We just had this one cold snap. It was warm, warm, warm, and then the tea was like, “Okay! We are coming!” and then the tea is growing steadily and then the cold snap happened. I don’t know if that had anything to do with climate change. But part of climate change is kind of more erratic weather patterns. So it could be...but it sounds like this wasn’t the first time something like this had ever happened but it is kind of rare.
Moé: I see… Well, a lot of our tea farmers have mentioned that global warming isn’t evidently impacting their tea farming at an acute level but on a longer time scale I imagine there have been changes that have been felt but also happening at a macro-level. Anyhow, you mentioned that your tea farm is located in a tea village. Would you say that there is a sense of community? Or do people work more individually?
Yancy: There is totally a sense of community. Everybody is helping each other on each other’s farms. We all eat lunch together whenever we are tea harvesting. Around here for a wage is “ichinichi ichimanyen” (one day wage approximately, $88.00) and then the tea farmer always feeds you lunch [laughter] and then at the end of the day, they usually send you home with a couple beers, too. So, we all just eat and work together. Well, most people are in their 60’s and 70’s. One couple that I work for - they are both like 85 years old and I go do tea trimming with them but they are still just able to do it.
Moé: Yes, I am often amazed at the older tea farmers in Japan.
Yancy: So there’s an abandoned school. So where I live, the village where I live and where I do tea farming are separate from each other. In the tea village, Aruse, there is an old abandoned school. But they’ve turned the abandoned school into a guest house. So that’s kind of their community project. They all do it together. I think they are closed right now due to the coronavirus. But anyways, there is a good sense of community. Everyone helps each other out in tea farming, they do soba together, hunting together… It’s a pretty good community.
Tea farmers helping each other out.
Moé: Oh, that reminds me of when I was in Houichi (Tokushima Prefecture), there were very nice soba fields and where I was staying, the host gave our group the option of eating only wild caught meat such as wild boar and deer [laughter]… sounds similar, although it was more of a sweet potato village. And changing subject a bit, when you hire your part-time workers, is that only during the busy harvest period?
Yancy: Yep. So on my tea farm, it takes one day for harvesting. One pretty full day. And I usually hire about 6 people. 3 people at least that can run the machine and then I need 3-4 people that can carry the bags full of tea down to the road. My farm is kind of far from the road so I need to hire people for that. Other than that, it’s only two other times a year when I need one other person. Just for doing the “sentei” (tea bush cutting) in the summer and also in the fall. 3-4 weeks ago, I did my fall sentei and I just needed one other person for that.
Moé: And outside of these times, it’s mainly just you? That’s monitoring and tracking things, doing all of the tea farming work?
Yancy: Yep, it’s mainly me. I do all the grass cutting, picking of weeds and vines. My wife was helping this year. It was so nice! But, she is pregnant again. So, we have another baby coming.
Yancy: So we are going to have three children. It was so nice working together because I was like, we can do the tea sentei together. But she won’t be able to do it for a while because she will be having a baby.
One of the special occasions when Yancy's wife and partner, Azusa-san was able to help out with the tea farming work.
Message from Yancy Lever
Moé: Well, it sounds like you have a lot to look forward to! And in the background, I do hear your daughters are home. So, I would like to wrap up by asking you if there is anything else you would like to say to the customers at Yunomi or simply, the people who drink your tea, or something else you would like to communicate?
Yancy: Yes, if you are already drinking my tea, thanks for trying it [laughter]. Hmm, what do I want to say to them?... [pause]
I hope everybody that buys my tea enjoys it and feels like they got value from the tea. I really appreciate whenever people are buying my tea because a lot of work goes into it. It’s a nice way to be able to sell my tea through Yunomi. So, please enjoy my tea I guess [laughter]. And to add to that, I guess a lot of my tea packaging has my Instagram QR code on the back. So check out my Instagram (yancha_boroya) and then it can be kind of fun to see all of the farming related things that’s going on in Japan. And also if any of the customers from Yunomi are interested in reaching out and want to talk to me about what’s going on in rural Japan, I am not super busy... Well, I am busy but I would be happy to talk to anyone who is drinking my tea or interested about living in Shikoku/rural Japan.
Moé: I may be interested in reaching out to you in the near future about living in rural Japan! For now, thank you again for your time today and I wish you the best of luck as you continue your tea farming journey and continue to grow your business with your partner and family. Thank you so much for your time and sharing your story with us today.
More about Yancha:
- Check out Yancy Lever's Teas on Yunomi!
- Revisit the Instagram interview with Yancy Lever and Ian Chun
- Yancha's Facebook page
- Follow Yancy Lever on Instagram
All photos from this blogpost were provided by Yancha.