Sandy Newman picking leaf tips for green tea. Photography by Stephen Brown

Tea Time For Local Farmer

“If it’s hard to grow, I want to grow it,” says local farmer Sandra Newman of Forbidden Fruit Orchards in Lompoc. Her tea plants are no exception.

Working with UC Cooperative Extension farm agent Mark Gaskell, Sandy is helping the UC Small Farm Program evaluate green tea as a small-farm crop for our area. Mark is well-known among local farmers for his role in identifying the blueberry and coffee varieties most likely to grow well in our region.

In 2005, Sandy planted 200 tea seedlings, propagated at UC Davis from a donation of seeds from the Rize region of Turkey. Rize lies in a coastal area, along the Black Sea. While the temperature range is similar to Lompoc, Rize is very humid and gets a year-round rainfall of about 85 inches per year.

Does Lompoc’s coastal fog environment provide enough moisture for these plants to thrive as a crop? Sandy invited me to visit Forbidden Fruit Orchards to see the 10-year result.

Entering her property, I pass a purple field of lavender. A little farther on my left, a vineyard of Pinot and Chardonnay grapes with flowering rose bushes at the end of each row to attract pollinating bees. I pass what’s left of the original Fuji and Gala apple (forbidden fruit) orchard, then a field of organic blueberries, past dwarf magnolia trees and brilliant blooms of yellow flowers, up the driveway to the house.

Sandy is waiting, her golden-red hair backlit by the sun as she welcomes me. Flora, Sandy’s large white collie, and Katrina, a Chihuahua mix, run in circles, barking enthusiastically in anticipation of our meeting. Reaching for Sandy’s outstretched hand, I see the glowing face of a woman who is living her dream and excited to share it.

She offers to show me the building where she processes the sun-ripened grapes into her estate-grown Cebada wines. Flora leads the way. It’s easy to see why Flora likes this room. It’s cool and filled with the heady fragrances of deliciously aging wine.

“My 2012 Pinot was recently chosen by the Piedmont Press as one of the top 10 Pinots at the 2015 Pinot Days tasting in San Francisco,” Sandy says. This is a big achievement for a small Santa Barbara winemaker.

After a brief stop at the kitchen she uses for private tastings, we hop into her RTV and head for the field of tea.

Most of the bushes are about four to five feet tall. All are varieties of Camellia sinesus. Some of the original plants have not survived but there is diversity among those that have. Many have small delicate leaves, while others have large strong leaves. Sandy points to a few remaining sweetly fragrant small white flowers. Most of the blooms have already turned to seed. Fallen seedpods crunch underfoot in the sandy soil as we walk between the rows. Drip lines feed water to the plants, but Sandy thinks an overhead mister would help increase the humidity, especially in the afternoons when the hot dry wind blows. She points to a bush partially shaded by a tree. The shaded side is deep green and vigorous; the sunny side is yellow and dry. Shading the rest of these plants is on her to-do list.

The blooms of the tea plant attract bees. It’s just the tips that are hand-picked to dry for green tea.

The bushes are ready for harvest. Only the bud and the first two leaves will be plucked from each stem of new growth. Sandy hand-picks each bush four or five times during the harvest season.

She dries the buds and leaves, then hand-fills each teabag. One teabag makes a whole pot of tea. Sandy recommends a three-minute steep, no more. “The caffeine is powerful,” she warns.

She points out two new plants. These are the Bohea variety favored by Japanese tea drinkers. Only one of the five Bohea varieties she planted has survived. She will propagate more of those using cuttings from the two survivors. Will this become a profitable crop? Perhaps.

Blueberries and wine are her primary income crops. However, she is experimenting with Persian mulberries, red currants, gooseberries and two varieties of Hardy kiwis—an oval orange hairless kiwi that has a strawberry-like flavor and a small round hairless green kiwi. She also grows Hass avocadoes
and olives.

In addition to selling fresh fruit, Sandy makes applesauce, jams, syrups and blueberry sorbet. You can buy these products on her website and at the Cebada Wine Tasting Room in downtown Santa Barbara.

You can also make an appointment for a private farm tour and tasting.

And if you’re the designated driver for a wine tasting, bring a thermos of hot water and buy a package of green tea. Taste it, share it and support the continued hard work of dedicated small farmers like Sandy.

Nancy Oster wrote this article while drinking a pot of Forbidden Fruit green tea. She also has a homemade batch of green tea kombucha in the fridge. “This,” she says, “is what food writing is all about.” 

This article was originally published in Fall 2015. 









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