I spent some time with Okutomi-san of Okutomi Tea Garden (a well-known local tea farmer in the Sayama region), and asked him about the work of tea farmers in the month of March.
March is not a busy month for tea farmers. If a busy month is 100, then March would be about 10% of that level. This is not to say that farmers are not busy in March, but compared to the May harvest season, it is definitely no where near as busy. (The least busy time of the year for tea farmers in Japan is January – February.)
Let’s take a look at some of the things farmers need to do in March to prepare for the first flush. March is the period right before the first new leaf buds appear, and there are a number of techniques farmers employ in order to create their delicious tea leaves. First, we definitely don’t want older leaves mixed with our first flush, so the tea hedges are trimmed of their winter leaves. [NOTE: in Kyoto, these winter leaves are then roasted to make Kyobancha.]
Farmers using pesticides also take action in this period to prevent insects from raiding the fields later on. Utilizing very strong pesticides will, of course, damage the environment and prevent good tea from being created, so knowledgable farmers utilize weak pesticides with targeted effects such as using oil to suffocate insects or using something that prevents insects from shedding their old skin. These types of pesticides may have minimal impact on the environment.Also, depending on the temperature during this period, Japanese farmers often use solar-powered fans perched atop high poles to circulate the air above the field. Generally the air about 6 meters above the field is 4-5 degrees warmer, and a downward pointing fan will push this warm air toward the tea plants, preventing the cold air from forming damaging frost on the plants. If the weather is cold during the period when new leaf buds appear, the frost can cause a lot of damage.
As March progresses and the season becomes increasingly spring-like, tea farmers start to get anxious, worrying about the emerging leaf buds, worrying about the temperature and weather, worrying about what kind of tea they’ll be able to produce this year.
This year, 2013, while it was a cold winter, it has gotten warm quite early, so we expect the shincha season to start a bit earlier than usual here in Sayama (Saitama Prefecture, just north of Tokyo). For example, Tanegashima Island just south of Kyushu in Southern Japan has already put out their shincha (as of 3/28). Shincha from Kagoshima should also be coming out this week as last year it was released on April 11th. (By the way, tea farms at higher altitudes generally have a later release date, often into May.)