There is little in this world that cannot be cured with, or, at least made more manageable by, a well-made, perfectly steeped cup of tea shared with an amenable companion.
Fairhope native and history museum director Donnie Barrett can provide both—the impeccably delicious tea and the richness of warm companionship. Donnie grew up around Auburn University’s Gulf Coast Research and Extension Center in Fairhope and has a deep interest in horticulture. Over the years, he has honed his knowledge and experience, and today, he is much sought after as a gentleman tea farmer.
His tea garden today consists of 40,000 genetically pure camellia sinesis shrubs along the western banks of Weeks Bay in southern Baldwin County. All true teas come from this single lone plant—camellia sinesis—although thousands of varieties exist, each with its own specific appearance and characteristics. Like coffee or wine, teas reflect the subtle differences resulting from soil, climate and elevation that affect the overall taste and appearance of the final tealeaves.
Tea is one of the oldest beverages known to civilization, and the art of growing it has developed over centuries. Tea reached Europe in 1609, and by the mid-18th century, it was being exported to the American colonies and even found its way to Baldwin County.
"Tea has been grown from old camellias in Montrose and Point Clear since the l700's,” Donnie says.
Donnie's own venture into tea farming began modestly, when he pulled three different plants from a burn pile and nursed them into tea producers. In the l970s, the Lipton Tea Company experimented with planting four Chinese hybrids along the eastern seaboard and the Gulf Coast at the Gulf Coast Research and Extension Center. Donnie followed those early experiments in coastal tea production with fervor and began propagating his own tea specimens.
"My father had grafted camellias, so I was familiar with the process,” he says. “I continued my education by traveling to China three times, and cloaked as a tourist with camera in hand, I learned some of the secrets to growing quality teas. I learned how to feel the tea, smell it, how much moisture the plants need and that it takes 10 years to make good tea-producers."
Growing tea is only half the battle. Once the tea camellias are growing well and established, the leaves must be harvested and processed into green, oolong, or black tea.
"The best tea leaves are small and young, plucked from the prolific first flush of spring," Donnie advises. "The plants produce their small white blossoms through autumn, winter, and on into the spring."
The tea production process continues with allowing the tender leaves to dry, then wither. Donnie then rolls them into balls and places on them blankets in the fields for further drying.
"This process produces the best tea in the world," Donnie explains. "Raising thriving tea camellias requires a real dedication to the process. You need to educate yourself by visiting with successful tea farmers."
The day-to-day labor of raising tea successfully includes weeding, keeping the area clean, and providing shade from the powerful UV sunrays for the young, tender plants.
Plantations of tea shrubs are commonly called gardens, which hints at the great care and respect that is taken with these precious plants. Donnie's "tea garden" of 40,000 camellias flourishes in his "country place" at the end of a dirt road, a mile from anyone.
"We enjoy no traffic noise and savor life under the oaks on a bluff where Weeks Bay meets Mobile Bay,” Donnie shares with a sigh. “It's a beautiful place.”
In this idyllic setting, complete with strutting turkeys and peacocks, Donnie and his wife, Lottie, also grow satsumas and elderberries and collect water plants for their three koi-filled ponds. While Donnie once sold his tea commercially, he no longer does. He now gives it away to fortunate friends and shares what he has learned about the process.
"I want my tea to be enjoyed around the world," Donnie says.
Auburn University specialists are so impressed with Donnie's decades-long achievements in tea production that they have asked him to write a brochure describing how to do it.
Donnie's expertise and advice in tea producing is also sought by aficionados from across the country. He has been featured in magazines and even had a French gourmet television show filmed at his home. He is currently mentoring two hopeful commercial tea growers in Andalusia and Orlando, Fla.
This talented museum director who loves history with his cup of tea, seems to relish his Renaissance Man persona. Living and sharing his passions, along with a delicious cup of homegrown tea, enrich the quality and nature of Donnie Barrett’s life, and the community is enriched by having him in it.