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Matcha Harvest, Generational Farming, Wendell Berry

By Eric Gower May 20, 2019

Matcha Harvest, Generational Farming, Wendell Berry

The 2019 matcha harvest has pretty much come to a close, as it does every year at this time. By all accounts, it's been an exceptional one.

It's the busiest time of the year for both producers of matcha and processors of matcha. The farmers have culminated their year-long efforts, and, if things have gone well, have sold their entire output to the processors, who are busy attending the many matcha auctions (the biggest/most important ones are in Kyoto, Nara, Kagoshima, and Aichi, with lesser-quality ones happening all over Shizuoka).

The highest-quality teas-- judged mainly by color, umami, aroma, and terroir -- often go quickly, and at comparatively high prices. Our buyers are known for offering excellent prices for excellent product; we LIKE curating the cleanest and most impressive tencha leaves (they are called matcha only after grinding the tencha), in the conviction that others share this belief in quality. Not everyone, of course; it's for people who care. 

We are not the people in the race to the bottom, driving the farmers toward the lowest-cost processes, in pursuit of tens of thousands of kilograms of whatever teas hit our target price. We look for farmers who charge more for their expertise, which becomes manifest in some of the most umami-laden gorgeous matcha in Japan's domestic market (and, thus, the world).

The farmers we purchase tencha from usually have deep roots in their region. It's not uncommon for families to continuously grow tea for 25 or more generations on the same plot of land. This kind of lineage is hard for most nonJapanese to imagine. Have any of us ever learned much about great grandparents? They're only three generations away from us. Try to imagine our great-to-the-6th grandparents, in other words, our great grandparents' great grandparents. Any takers on that one? That's six. Our tea farmers routinely claim 25! With meticulous records kept as well.

Everyone of those generations has been through many decades of annual harvests. The land keeps giving, the knowledge accumulates and compounds. The matcha keeps getting better.

Wendell Berry, the inimitable farmer, poet, novelist, and environmental activist (some would say warrior) echoed the sentiment like this:

“The atmosphere, the earth, the water and the water cycle – those things are good gifts.

The ecosystems, the ecosphere, those are good gifts.

We have to regard them as gifts because we couldn’t make them.

We have to regard them as good gifts because we couldn’t live without them.”

The interconnectedness of the matcha's natural environment and the people who live and work there is just so patently obvious. Rural tea-centric places like Uji, Nishio, and outer Kagoshima are so freaking beautiful you want to cry, or shout, or just silently bliss out. Local rivers and watersheds are always involved, as are nearby forests. Fauna and flora thrive. All connect with the residents there, and beautifully demonstrate how interdependent with all other living systems we are. We all require healthy clean air, which is provided by photosynthesis in the thousands of species of plants. 

I've long fantasized of getting a small shack (which can be had for absurdly low amounts of cash) in Wazuka. One day. A flash of oxytocin rushes through me just thinking about the landscape there.

* * *

Berry again in his wonderful 1988 essay, On Economy and Pleasure, on tobacco harvesting.

"I can say, for example, that the tobacco harvest in my own home country involves the hardest work that I have done in any quantity. In most of the years of my life, from early boyhood until now, I have taken part in the tobacco cutting. This work usually occurs at some time between the last part of August and the first part of October. Usually the weather is hot; usually we are in a hurry. The work is extremely demanding, and often, because of the weather, it has the character of an emergency. Because all of the work must still be done by hand, this event has maintained much of its old character; it is very much the sort of thing the agriculture experts have had in mind when they have talked about freeing people from drudgery.

That the tobacco cutting can be drudgery is obvious. If there is too much of it, if it goes on too long, if one has no interest in it, if one cannot reconcile oneself to the misery involved in it, if one does not like or enjoy the company of one’s fellow workers, then drudgery would be the proper name for it.

But for me, and I think for most of the men and women who have been my companions in this work, it has not been drudgery. None of us would say that we take pleasure in all of it all of the time, but we do take pleasure in it, and sometimes the pleasure can be intense and clear. Many of my dearest memories come from these times of hardest work."

Japanese farmers have told me similar stories, almost verbatim -- just change the dates and crop.

He goes on:

"The crew to which I belong is the product of kinships and friendships going far back; my own earliest associations with it occurred nearly forty years ago. And so as we work we have before us not only the present crop and the present fields, but other crops and other fields that are remembered. The tobacco cutting is a sort of ritual of remembrance. Old stories are re-told; the dead and the absent are remembered. Some of the best talk I have ever listened to I have heard during these times, and I am especially moved to think of the care that is sometimes taken to speak well—that is, to speak fittingly—of the dead and the absent. The conversation, one feels, is ancient. Such talk in barns and at row ends must go back without interruption to the first farmers. How long it may continue is now an uneasy question; not much longer perhaps, but we do not know. We only know that while it lasts it can carry us deeply into our shared life and the happiness of farming."

Imagine if Berry had 25 generations to work with!

You can feel these connections in the tencha made by these farmers who care. If you'd like to taste some of their exemplary matcha, head on over to our hyperpremium page

Eric is the founder and chief matcha evangelist at Breakaway Matcha. He's also an author, ghostwriter, editor, cooking instructor, and private chef. For 16 years, he lived and worked in Japan, where he took deep dives into all things matcha, food, literature, arts, and culture. Eric is the author of three cookbooks: The Breakaway Cook, The breakaway Japanese Kitchen, and Eric's Kitchen. He lives and works in Marin County, CA.