Virus complicates Hangzhou's tea harvest

Wu Huixin
Labor shortages and market weakness are among the challenges faced by growers of the famed Longjing tea. Authorities move to offer relief while still promoting public health.
Wu Huixin

Spring marks the beginning of the Longjing tea-picking season in Hangzhou, home of the tea famous around the country for its high quality and great taste.

The villages and towns in the hilly areas of western Hangzhou are noted for their Longjing tea. This year, however, the novel coronavirus outbreak has created problems for farmers in terms of harvesting and sales.

To coordinate production and help growers get through this difficult period, Hangzhou government has put forward a series of measures to spur tea demand, stabilize employment and provide financial support for farm owners.

Virus complicates Hangzhou's tea harvest

A farmer picks Longjing tea leaves in Hangzhou, home of the tea famous around the country for its high quality and great taste. The prices may fluctuate due to the novel coronovirus outbreak this year. 

“We must protect the city’s golden calling card and stringently secure its production,” said Zhou Jiangyong, Party secretary of Hangzhou.

Generally, local farms begin harvest preparations in late February when at least 11,000 out-of-town workers arrive to pick tea leaves in Hangzhou’s main growing areas. But due to travel restrictions and confinement policies, the epidemic has hindered many tea companies when it comes to recruiting labor.

“Our village committee planned to charter coaches or trains to pick up migrants, but the plan was rejected as our regular pickers are scattered across Guizhou, Anhui and Jiangxi provinces. The cost was too high,” said Lu Huafang, a farm owner from Cimuqiao Village.

She plants more than 12 hectares of tea trees which produce Longjing tea and Jiuqu Hongmei black tea. Now, she is worried about this year’s crop going to waste.

“The harvest time only lasts about half a month. As a result, if we cannot reap the leaves within this period, they won’t be tender,” Lu said.

Virus complicates Hangzhou's tea harvest
Wu Huixin / SHINE

Longjing tea leaves are planted in the hilly area of western Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province.  

Local officials have met with farm owners to work out measures for personnel recruitment.

They are looking for idle laborers in villages and encouraging them to join in the tea-picking work. Villagers who work at companies which have not resumed production are also encouraged to participate in the harvest.

The staffing situation at Sun Bin’s farm is better than Lu’s. Sun has already contacted 26 workers from Quzhou City in west Zhejiang Province with the help from the Wengjiashan Village Committee. A charter coach will go to pick them up. Meanwhile, his family and relatives will also fill the gap.

Before out-of-town workers enter villages, they should verify their health information through the color-labeled system that tracks possible coronavirus carriers. Only people with green code are allowed to enter, and their arrival must be reported to the village committee within one hour.

To avoid mass gatherings, workers should pick tea leaves separately and wear facial masks at all times. Tea-picking and frying containers, tools and equipment have to be stringently disinfected every day.

The epidemic is also expected to have an impact on sales. Usually visitors flock to purchase tea in spring. This year though, the number of buyers has fallen dramatically.

To spur consumption, the West Lake Scenic Area Commission has helped farmers switch to online shopping platforms and decrease their dependence on offline sales.

“Formerly, our products were mainly sold at offline outlets. Now we have joined Taobao’s shopping festival, and we hope that the online sales can make up for offline channels,” Lu added.

Traditional tea harvest festivals and other related activities have been canceled to reduce infection risks in towns and villages.

By now, eight tea companies have already resumed production. According to the government’s epidemic control guidelines, every company, workshop and individual must receive permission from official departments before starting tea production. Village committees will staff them to control the epidemic.

On average, yearly production of Longjing tea is about 110 tons. The first crop of Longjing tea, known as mingqian tea, is considered the most precious and the highest quality.

First-harvest Longjing tea is treasured by connoisseurs and prices can run between 6,000 yuan (US$856) and 10,000 yuan per kilogram.

This year, prices may fluctuate due to the epidemic. The government will subsidize farmers to stabilize prices, and balance supply and demand.In the coming days, specific subsidies will be announced.

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