Johnny Appleseed of the Tea Plants
The Fairhope Tea Plantation is tucked away off Hwy 98 amongst the woodlands, wetlands, and agricultural fields. Donnie Barrett, a native of Fairhope and owner of the plantation, has done many years of study and research on how to grow and make tea. He has been all over the world, including China, to learn how to make the perfect cup of tea. Barrett came from an agricultural background. His father was an agricultural research scientist. Barrett’s classes in wildlife biology at Auburn University have helped him with horticultural techniques for his tea.
Barrett started experimenting with tea in 1979. He was dumping hurricane debris at a Corps of Engineers dump site at the Auburn University Research and Extension Center in Fairhope, Alabama. He came across the area where the Lipton Tea Company had been conducting tea-growing experiments at a Substation. Hurricane Fredrick of 1979 caused a lot of damage, and the Lipton experiments were terminated. Lipton took all the files and data and left the area. Barrett was able to salvage some tea plants that were not destroyed and started his own experimenting with the tea plants.
Barrett says, “Today, I have 61,000 mature tea plants and thousands and thousands of little ones on my farm.” He says, “I’m the Johnny Appleseed of the tea plant.” Barrett sells tea plants to big farmers from all over the United States. “I’m well known in the industry for selling tea plants and am one of the most senior tea growers in the U.S.”
Tourists come to Barrett’s farm every day to learn how to grow and make tea. His tours include a ride through rows of tea plants on his plantation, and a thorough discussion of tea growing and tea making, over a cup of tea. “I tell them the difference between black tea, green tea, and white tea. I have a bucket of tea plants with me, and I give a piece of the plants to my visitors.” He also has green tea and black tea available to purchase, loose or in traditional tea bags.
He generally sells 5,000 to 7,000 tea plants to the big farmers every year. He has already sold 4,000 plants this year to farmers from South Carolina and Virginia. “I even have farmers that travel all the way from California to get my tea plants,” Barrett said. “Typically, farmers purchase the tea plants in the fall. This is the best time to move the plants.” The farmers and visitors must come to his plantation to get the plants because Barrett does not ship. He says, “I don’t like going to the post office and standing in lines.”
Tea plants can tolerate a wide range of soil. However, “There is a technique to growing tea, “said Barrett. “Originally, they come from an area where they live in cracks of rocks. Their roots run from cracks in the rocks looking for dirt.” Barrett holds one-hour classes for visitors and teaches them how to plant and grow their tea plants. The classes are free, and he sells his plants for $1.00 each. He said, “Generally, if you go to a professional, they will charge $650/hour for a consultation fee and then charge $18-24 a plant. It’s obvious that I get a lot of business. I help people start farms,” he said enthusiastically.
Barrett says, "I'm what you call an artisan producer, not a commercial producer. I have never wanted to be a big farmer selling to shops, restaurants, and huge companies.” He was adamant about that statement. He added, “I have resisted for 44 years.” He explains that he just wants to sell to the people and farmers who want to learn about growing and making tea. “I sell most of my tea right here in my driveway.”
Barrett retired 5 years ago after many years of service at the Fairhope Museum. He has a wide range of background experience, including being a schoolteacher and writer of many history books. A few years ago, he started writing his own book about tea growing and making tea. “I want to share what I know and how I have evolved over the years. I add a little information to my book every year.” Barrett said, “I do all of this for the fun of it. It was just a hobby, but now it’s a hobby on steroids. Visit fairhopeteaplantation.com