“We germinated these in our backyard last year,” says Aubrey, of the camellia sinensis seedlings. “The plant itself goes dormant in winter, and that’s good, because it means we can keep them alive. Our basement is not an ideal situation, but we don’t have a place to put them yet.”
The Lopatins hope to find a ten-acre plot near Ann Arbor to raise the woody perennials in a hoop house. The plants put down deep roots, which makes a tea farm, like an orchard or a vineyard, a long-term commitment. “Once we plant these plants,” says Aubrey, “they’re not going anywhere.” They also take five years to reach maturity. In the meantime, the Lopatins will continue to operate their online tea store, arborteas.com, and grow other products to make the farm more self-sufficient.
The planned tea farm has made it to the final round for one of twenty $150,000 grants from Chase Bank’s Mission Main Street program, and the Lopatins will find out in January if they got it. But that won’t make or break the deal. “Obviously, if we get the grant that will allow us to move much faster,” Aubrey says. “If not, we’ll have to be a little more conservative.”
The Lopatins started the company in 2004, shortly after they were married. “I always thought that when I retired, I would open a little coffee or tea shop,” says Aubrey, who was a graduate student in architecture at the time. But then she asked herself, “Why wait until I grow old?”
There was no budget for a bricks-and-mortar store, but they had a friend who was a website designer, so they painted several rooms in his house in exchange for his services. For ten years, they took turns running the company and holding down full-time outside jobs, Aubrey at Kerrytown Concert House, Jeremy as an urban planner and digital marketer.
Their business plan blended beautifully with growing demand for tea in general and organic tea in particular. “The market was already growing healthily when we jumped in,” Jeremy concedes, “but it helped that we jumped in ten years ago.”
Since 2011, sales have nearly tripled. This past November, Jeremy left his latest outside job. Both he and Aubrey now work full-time for the company, joining four other staffers.
Arbor Teas went all organic in 2007. But “some of our customers distrust organic systems abroad, particularly in China,” says Aubrey. “And with the Fukushima disaster and radiation release in Japan, there’s been a big push from our customers for finding other sources of tea.”
“We’ve added [teas from] Kenya, Korea, and Hawaii in the past year,” says Jeremy, “driven in large part by demand from customers and partly by our own interest in having a portfolio of teas from all over the world.”
Tea is also now being cultivated in areas where it hasn’t been before, including decidedly non-tropical British Columbia and Traverse City. “Nice-quality organic teas are now being grown in locations other than the traditional ones,” says Jeremy.
“That also led us to wonder if we could grow it here,” Aubrey adds. There’s a globe in their storage, packing, and shipping facility on N. Main St. with lines drawn on it to indicate tea’s climate range. The northernmost boundary includes parts of Michigan.
Jeremy says growing tea locally fits the company’s focus on sustainability. “Even though the supply chain is not super inefficient–customers spend way more energy boiling the water than goes into getting the tea to them–we’d like to shorten that chain by growing, processing, and packing it here,” he says.
They’ll be counting on the geothermally heated hoop house to get the plants through the winter. “If we can figure this out and make it successful, we think that there are broader implications for four-season growing in our region, a broader diversity of things than maybe are grown currently,” says Jeremy. “Our intent is to collect data within the hoop house and outside–temperature, humidity, lumens–and create a database to share with others so they can get to the best outcome faster.”
“We’d like to be more involved in the local food shed,” adds Aubrey, “and this is one way we can do it.”
Meanwhile, the search for a tea farm goes on. The plants can stay in pots only for a year. “They’re going to keep getting bigger,” says Jeremy, “and they have to go somewhere.”