Tea auction houses are a choke point for black tea transactions globally. The routine flow of commercial grades of tea is in jeopardy as major tea auctions react to the pandemic. Twin threats loom, the first involves gatherings that ensure the safety of participants. The second is the logistics. India’s national lockdown was tragically timed to the onset of the first flush, which observers predict is lost.
TheColombo Tea Traders Association (CCTA) successfully conducted an all-digital auction – a first in 126 years of “outcry” bidding. The pandemic shut down the auction temporarily, halted shipping, and closed factories engaged in processing, blending, and packaging tea. “The tea industry has since regained its composure and momentum, and all its operations are now gradually resuming full capacity islandwide,” according to CCTA. The e-auction runs April 4-6, with samples available for viewing online and for purchase remotely under the guidance of theColombo Tea Brokers’ Association.
India’s Darjeeling growers earn 40% of their business during March and early April as first-flush teas are rushed to clients in Europe, Russia, Japan, and the US. Plucking had just commenced when India’s prime minister ordered a 21-day national lockdown on March 25. Tea bushes welcome spring with their best quality shoots, which amount to 25% of the crop by volume but bring an estimated $20 million (INRs150 crore), or roughly 40% of revenue. Lost sales are compounded by the fact that by April 15, when the lockdown is scheduled to end, trees will be overgrown, forcing a time-consuming and costly pruning. Darjeeling annually produces about 8 million kilos of tea. That will not be the case in 2020.
The financial losses Darjeeling faces led the Union Home Ministry on April 3 to amend its workforce order to permit gardens to operate with up to half their workers if they enforce social distancing. However, few seem willing to operate processing factories, bought-leaf factories are closed to smallholders, and workers’ unions in West Bengal and Assam strenuously oppose returning to work due to the contagion and limited healthcare. North Bengal accounts for a quarter of India’s 1.3 billion kilo harvest.
India’s street corner chaiwallahs and tea stand vendors operate without inventory or cash reserves. In the past three weeks, the steady business of supplying office workers has disappeared along with crowded trains and bus stations. At 20 rupees per cup, these workers earn less than $1.50 per day after expenses.
The approximately 1600 US tea shops in all but eight states where residents are now under orders to stay at home, are experiencing dramatic declines in foot traffic. It is hard to profit from small transactions, so Emma’s Tea Spot in Baltimore promoted its curbside pickup and delivery by offering staples as incentives. These include eggs, bread, and toilet paper. Orders are mainly by phone with payment prior to pickup or delivery. No employees come into contact with customers since orders are placed in a sanitized pickup area outside the building.
China Harvest Underway
Saturday (April 4) marked the opening day of the tea harvest in China. Qingming celebrations, which involve traveling to the ancestral homes of urban Chinese, are subdued in many parts of the country this year as more than 3,000 perished amid 83,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Tea harvests in Zhejiang and Anhui Province are in full swing. Harvesting is underway but delayed in Hubei, which is the third-largest producing province and the center of the pandemic.
Yunnan continues to experience a severe drought. Chinese authorities say 1.14 million of the province’s 47 million residents are experiencing difficulties accessing drinking water, along with a quarter of a million head of livestock. Crops covering 180,000 hectares are drought damaged according to the provincial water conservancy department. “At present, 78 rivers in Yunnan have been cut off, 115 reservoirs have dried up, and 99 irrigation wells have an insufficient water supply,” according to a report published by Xinhua News Service.
The European Tea Society is hosting a free webinar on How Pandemics and Climate Change are Affecting the Tea Trade.
The coronavirus outbreak is causing logistical havoc in advance of the world’s most valuable tea harvest.
“All parts of the country (except Hubei Province) are gradually returning to work and production under the guidance of the tea district government,” writes Tea Weekly.
Hubei Province, an important producing region, remains under lockdown with 2,500 (2,467) deaths, and 80,000 (78,914) confirmed cases of the fast-spreading epidemic centered in the city of Wuhan.
“China is reeling from the outbreak of novel coronavirus-caused pneumonia,” according to Cai Jun, secretary general of tea with the China Chamber of Commerce of Import and Export of Foodstuffs, Native Produce and Animal By-Products (CFNA). CFNA is an influential trade association that operates under the supervision of China’s Ministry of Commerce.
Setbacks are not due to illness or deaths of tea garden workers; it is the result of a national effort to limit travel, close factories, ban public gatherings and shutdown bus, train, air, and subways to prevent the virus from spreading.
“As far as I know, Chinese tea people are all safe and sound, which indicates that drinking tea helps to strengthen immunity,” writes Mr. Cai.
China’s tea industry saw this coming, according to tea retailer Austin Hodge, founder of Seven Cups Fine Chinese Tea in Tucson, Ariz. Hodge, who imports tea direct from China, recalls the SARS epidemic in 2003. The Chinese learned valuable lessons from that outbreak, which killed 774 globally.
“No tea is going to waste. They are not plucking if they cannot process,” explains Hodge, who praised the Chinese for “making all the necessary adjustments.”
“In rural tea country, the real issue isn’t the virus; it’s the lockdown and logistics. Everybody is local. They don’t have to travel anywhere,” he said.
He expects his first tea of the year to arrive on schedule in a week or two.
Procedures at China’s largest tea company factory in Erhai are typical. The plant resumed operations Feb. 13 as 700 workers were screened for fever, completed and signed a personal health commitment promising to wear masks, disinfect their hands and periodically visit one of six health test points. Upon entering the factory, they scanned the “Yunnan Epidemic Prevention” QR code with their cell phones, activating a cell phone (WeChat mini app) that tracks their movement and warns employers if they have encountered someone who has come down with the virus.
Effective Feb. 11, all Yunnan residents must scan a QR code to enter and exit public places, including residential complexes, markets, malls, hospitals, and public transit hubs. “No name, ID or other content is stored,” and Yunnan promises to destroy the tracking data once the virus is contained.
A factory manager estimated the increased security reduced productivity by 10%.
In the southern-most tea gardens where the harvest is just beginning, those who prune and pluck tea are required to wear masks and are not permitted to form groups. They must keep a minimum distance of 10 feet apart while working.
The China Tea Circulation Association reports that specialty harvests began Feb. 10 in Gaoxian in Sichuan and on Feb. 20 in southern Zhejiang (Wenzhou and Lishui).
“Under the epidemic situation, while doing a good job of prevention and control, multiple tea-producing areas and companies across the country have also organized tea farmers to start the first batch of 2020 spring tea picking,” according to the association.
“We’re not in picking season yet, so the virus hasn’t had much effect on the tea production and international trade. Although it does affect the sales, it’s overall manageable,” writes Mr. Cai.
Grocery stores and supermarkets remain open, and food and beverage delivery are permitted, but the lockdown has cut foot traffic at China’s premier tea malls to a fraction of normal.
“When most tea markets are not open, companies are encouraged to sell online and micro-businesses,” advises the Agriculture and Rural Bureau of Yuzhou District as reported on the Sichuan News Network. Production of Chuancha in Yuzhou is projected at 1,800 metric tons valued at more than $42.5 million (RMB300 million).
More than 500 million Chinese drink approximately 1.9 million metric tons of tea annually, according to the China Tea Marketing Association. The domestic tea market is valued at $18 billion.
During the crisis, overall retail sales are being stripped of $144 billion a week, according to China’s Evergrande Think Tank (as reported by Forbes).
The impact thus far is most significant in congested urban areas. Every province, including Tibet, has reported cases of Covid-19, but tea regions were spared the initial brunt of the epidemic. Hubei reported 64,084 cases and 2,346 deaths.
Enshi tea producers are the closest hot spot, about 500 kilometers west of Wuhan. Plucking generally commences March 15 on Wufeng Mountain. Enshi is a green tea region, one of the few that specializes in steamed green teas. Train and bus service was suspended in January, all 70,000 cinemas in the province were closed, and public gatherings were forbidden. Only grocery stores, gas stations, drug stores, and hospitals are operating.
Generally speaking, the spread of Covid-19 in tea growing areas is slow, and infections in neighborhoods and local outbreaks are comparatively rare. Covid-19 cases in other places such as Enshi and Shennongjia are still attributed to imported cases, and the risk of spread is relatively low,” according to Epidemiologist Dr. Liang Wannian, Beijing’s health chief. His responses to questions from reporters were posted by the State Council of Information Office in Beijing.
How Bad Could It Get?
In addition to tea and coffee, Yunnan is one of the most important growing regions for cut flowers. Harvesting flowers is time-sensitive, and Valentine’s Day represents a significant but fleeting business opportunity.
Fresh-cut flowers from Yunnan are exported to 46 countries and makeup 70% of domestic market share in China’s major cities. Growers earn $64,000 (RMB450,000) per hectare on average selling flowers for $0.20 (RMB1.43) per bloom.
This year the timing could not have been worse, resulting in big losses due to a critical break in the supply chain as trucks, trains, and flights were suspended.
The magnitude of the problem became evident in early February at the Dounan Flower Market in Kunming. Dounan is the largest fresh-cut flower market in Asia. During the period Jan 27 to Feb 5, trade volume in the market slumped 95% to $61,355 (RMB431,500). Sales were 4.78% percent compared to the same period in 2019. Dounan sold 6.53 billion cut flowers valued at RMB5.4 billion last year.
This was compounded by the fact that 50 million consumers were confined to their homes in the Wuhan region and that offices nationwide were closed for as long as two weeks beyond the traditional spring festival travel holiday. The auction was shut down for several days, re-opening Feb. 10.
One-third of Yunnan’s annual cut-flower revenue is earned in February, according to Wang Jihua, deputy director of the Yunnan Provincial Academy of Agricultural Sciences. Mr. Wang estimates that the loss of Yunnan’s flower industry, including supporting industries such as logistics, during the special period will reach RMB3 to RMB5 billion ($425,000 to $715,000).”
Transport options were cut by 90% during the height of the lockdown and are only now being restored. Roadblocks prevented entire villages from access to larger cities and towns. Tea faces a less critical timeline―processing must begin within four hours once leaves are plucked―but the logistics of transportation are the same.
Phil Orlando, Chief Equity Market Strategist and Head of Client Portfolio Management at Federated Investors, told Bloomberg Newsweek the world’s stock markets had not indicated the true impact on trade. “In my humble opinion, it will be bigger than people think,” he said.
Orlando was proved correct Feb. 25 when stock markets globally suffered steep declines.
The last three weeks of February were the first in which the number of patients cured of the disease outnumbers those who contracted Covid-19. It is too soon to declare an end to the crisis, but progress is evident.
“The epidemic is under effective control due to the Chinese government’s prevention and control measures,” writes Mr. Cai. During the lockdown, “most people work from home except those who work in the sectors responsible for the supply of the necessities. We have full confidence and capability to win this fight against the epidemic,” he said.
Mr. Cai said that China’s major tea companies “have shown a dedication to fighting this virus by donating money and necessary supplies to those affected areas.” CFNA was forced to postpone three tea conferences scheduled for March, and several tea fairs, including the spring edition of the Global Tea Fair, are being rescheduled.
China’s 80 million rural tea laborers annually produce 2.56 million metric tonnes of mainly green tea on 3 million hectares of land. Their effort results in half of the world’s annual tea production of 5.2 million metric tons.
Domestic sales by volume are mainly of green tea, but many localities, including Quimen, Fuzhou, Wuyi, and Fuding (in Fujian province) and Pu’er in Yunnan Province, specialize in the production of high-value oolong, white, jasmine, black, and post-fermented teas.
The China Tea Marketing Association estimates 63.1% of domestic sales are from green tea; Pu’er teas represent 14% of sales; oolong represents 11.1%; black tea accounts for 9.9% of sales and white tea for 1.5% with yellow tea estimated at 0.4% in 2018. The Chinese will drink 670,000 metric tonnes of tea in 2020, for which they will spend $18 billion.
Tea plantation acreage has grown substantially since 2006 with most new plantings south of the Yangtze River valley in Guizhou, Yunnan, Sichuan, and Hubei provinces—the four best-known tea growing regions.
Tea grown south of the Yangtze river spans several provinces. It is called Jiangnan and includes Zhejiang, Jiangxi, portions of Anhui, and Hunan provinces. It is the largest tea producing region by volume. Hubei province is split with Wuhan north of the Yangtze and Enshi, south of the river near the Wufeng Mountains. Wuhan is 850 kilometers inland from Shanghai, which is at the mouth of the Yangtze.
Tea grown north of the Yangtze (Jiangbei) spans Henan, Shandong and northern Anhui. Jiangbei is China’s smallest tea growing region.
South China is known as the Huanan growing region. This superior tea growing region spans coastal Fujian, Guangxi, and Hainan island. Fujian is the most important tea producing province by value.
Tea in Southwestern China within the Xinan region is grown in Guizhou, Yunnan, and Sichuan provinces. The earliest teas are plucked in late February in the semi-tropical portions of this zone bordering Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar.
By Austin Hodge, President of Seven Cups
Seven Cups is an importer of Chinese tea, located in Tucson, Arizona
Filed April 6, 2014. An abridged version appeared in World Tea News previously. Read our previous story about Qing Ming and its meaning from our April 7 Need to Know post.
I started writing this on the way up Xigui Mountain in Lincang Country to check out the condition of some ancient tea trees. We raced along a one lane winding road for about 80 kilometers, starting in Lincang City, a thousand feet above the valley floor. Along the mountain roads there are hard working stone carvers making new facades for the ancestors of local tea growers, as well as plenty of colorful fake money to be burned so that they have some cash. There is plenty of incense also to celebrate Qing Ming, the tomb sweeping holiday, pivotal for both ancestor worship and tea. It was typical of my trip traveling through Lincang Country, visiting areas that are producing some of the most sought after puer. This puer is certainly some of the most expensive, ranging into the thousands of dollars per kilo.
My first question has been how’s the weather? How has it affected the tea? In this area of Yunnan the weather has not been problematic. The old tea trees are producing excellently. The prices here have been doubling every year, and questions about a new bubble are met with exuberant denial even though the evidence is abundant that a crash is coming.
A few weeks ago I was in Hangzhou in Zhejiang, and then I traveled to Anhui and Fujian. The harvest had just begun in Zhejiang, coming a few days before I got the in Xinchang, guaranteeing a very robust pre-Qingming harvest. In all of those places I could not find any evidence that the hot, dry summer last year would have any effect on this years crop. There has never been any time in history, that I know of, where the was no pre-Qingming tea produced, so I can only see those dire predictions coming out of the Chinese press last year, as an attempt to imitate American cable news journalism. I was a little bit early for the harvest to begin in Huangshan but there was no indication that there would not be a great crop this year. The same was true in the Wuyishan area where twice I was caught in the rain searching for shelter while up in the mountains.
On our way to Xishuanbana in Southern Yunnan, just out side of Jingmai, we were caught in a violent thunderstorm while having dinner. According to one of the peasants that owned the place, the government had been seeding the clouds to create some badly needed rain. The ferocious storm tried to blow his little corrugated metal Chinese greasy spoon away while we ate. Just down the road we passed a massive metal billboard sign that had been blown off of a roof blocking most of the road. This last winter brought record low temperatures to the south of Yunnan; snow fell for the first time in some places, damaging some of the forests.
The day before Qing Ming, yesterday, I got a much more reliable report from an old friend in Youle, on top of one of the ‘Six Famous Mountains’ of Xishaunbana. Yang Guanqi is one of my favorite producers in the area and my go-to guy when it comes to any question about Xishuanbana. The rumor about the cloud seeding was probably not true, because the rain had been going on for days, and it rained while we were looking over his ancient tree garden in the afternoon. Still the drought that has been going on for years in Southern Yunnan will not be countered by a few days rain. It has drastically affected the old trees and overall production is way down and will be this year also. The trees will not be harmed, but their new growth will be small and has been decreasing every year. This year will be the no different. The younger bushes are going to produce more quality in contrast. Tea consumers should be very skeptical when buying any cakes being advertised as coming from old trees. The price of all puer will go up this year.