Monica Griesbaum and her family grow organic tea and tisanes on Windy Hollow Farm in Perthshire, Scotland. They see their crop as a part of the local ecosystem, a system they encourage and nurture as they nurture themselves.
Locavore spoke to Monica about the complexity of tea, the connections between nature and wellbeing, and the deep history of their own spring water.
How did Windy Hollow Farm come about?
Well, it’s really a family affair. I couldn’t do what I do without the support of my family, and I appreciate this each day. We were lucky a number of years ago to find, and be able to afford, a special piece of Perthshire with its beautiful soil and spring water.
My own background is in psychology and wellbeing, and I always believed that our wellbeing can be aided by being in, and learning in, nature. I believe that we can only create and sustain healthy ecosystems with organic and natural farming practices. For us, the organic and natural farming came first and then we chose tea (Camellia sinensis) and tisanes. They fit in very well and we are pleased with how our little farm of 24 acres is progressing.
Why did you decide to grow tea? And what types of tea do you grow?
A friend of ours mentioned tea to us, and then I came across wonderful people who I was able to learn the basics from. My trip to Taiwan and staying with organic and natural tea farms, making tea together from harvest to finished tea, was absolutely essential. There I learned not to use a watch but to use my sense of smell and touch to move through the different stages of tea making. Black tea has a withering stage which then moves on to rolling, oxidation, blackening, and drying. A true two-day process of science and art leading to a delicious hand-rolled black tea. Wonderful.
Tea is something that is more associated with hotter climates. What have the challenges been in growing a viable crop where you are?
Yes that’s true, tea growing is associated with hotter climates, but you can now find tea plantations all over the world including Canada. Tea growing can also be challenging in hotter climates where water, sadly, has become a scarce resource. Some tea plantation now rely on very deep boreholes to get enough water for their plants. Our plants don’t have this challenge with Windy Hollow Farm having its own spring water, and of course plenty of fresh rainwater from above too. Our challenges are more concerning low temperatures and, at times, strong cold winds during the winter months. Young tea plants have to be sheltered from these conditions.
How long does it take to bring the tea from seed to crop? Can you tell us more about the process?
Well, tea planting is a passion and not for the short-term minded. At Windy Hollow a tea plant starts from seed and will spend its first growing year in our seedling area. In year two or three, our tea toddlers are then planted in their final location in the ground where they will stay for the rest of their lives. This can be easily hundreds of years. The first crop can be experimented with when the plant is quite young; tea is so fascinating, and tea flavour has so many nuances that, even from the same plant, the taste will change with the age of the plant and time of year.
What changes have you made to the land since you started? And how have these changes affected the local ecosystem?
This is an interesting question. Our approach at Windy Hollow is that our tea plants are at the core of what we do, but are very much one part of the whole ecosystem that is our farm. We see it as one system with a number of connected parts. We nourish and support all these parts. They include, for example, a young woodland of 900 trees, a marsh area with darker soil and higher ph nourishing humidity-loving plants like our Scottish water mint and meadowsweet, a wild very old pond with damselflies and marsh cinquefoils, and a natural stone ridge offering plants a drier and lower ph soil with plants like the Scottish harebell being at home here. It is important to support these different areas on a farm. They are all connected and support each other. For example, our wild pond and natural stream support wildlife such as toads, and they in turn help us by nibbling on all the insects we don’t want on our tea plants. In nature all is connected ,and we respect all these parts.
You also produce your own spring water. What is the story behind the water in the area?
Oh, it has a very interesting history. First of all, we deeply appreciate our spring water on the farm. It is crucial for wildlife, plants, and humans, as we all can see across the world especially where high quality water isn’t so easily available.
Here is a little history about our spring. In the 1850s and 1860s, the hydropathy movement was in full swing in Scotland, and further afield. The philosophy was to establish hydropathy retreats for people, to offer respite and relaxation space away from the busy Victorian city life and general everyday tasks and responsibilities. Clean air and, as the name suggests, pure clean water were the main ingredients. During this time, and close to Windy Hollow Spring in Trinity Gask, a Hydropathy Centre was established in Crieff, now called Crieff Hydro. Water from Windy Hollow Spring was taken over the hills and brought to this centre for visitors to enjoy, drink, and bathe in. Our spring was then called Cowgask Spring. Now, after all these years, we use this wonderful water that pushes out of the ground for nourishing our plants and humans too.
You use renewable energy to power the farm. Is this from your own projects, or bought from a supplier?
Our farm is off-grid, and we use solar and hydro to produce electricity. This is from our own projects. Everything we do on the farm where we need electricity, including tea and tisane making, is all from renewable energy. Our hope is for the future that it will be possible for more people to realise this too.
How does your thinking on sustainability affect other aspects of your business? Packaging, for instance.
We had a lot of thinking about this topic. Tea packaging often either uses plastic or aluminium foil, and we wanted to avoid this. So we decided with our own packaging to use reusable glass containers, and when we work with other companies who may package our tea we are also very aware of this, and raise it with our partners. We don’t use tea bags because most tea bags are either full of toxins or use plastic. Also we believe that a high quality tea or tisane is normally so beautiful to see that you don’t want to cover it up in a tea bag. We are very proud that our teas look vibrant with leaves intact before and after brewing.
You also offer glamping in your yurt and your solar-powered cabin. Was this something you had always planned to do?
Well, the glamping really started to happen more when we started tea tours, and tea visitors from abroad wanted to maybe stay one or two nights. Our glamping accommodation is basic but comfortable and uses solar lights, and a solar outdoor shower for the hardy ones! I guess it also gives us additional income while our tea plants are still young and harvest isn’t huge.
What plans do you have for the next couple of years?
Every year we learn from the previous year about so many things. We learn more about our plants, our soil, and the art of tea making of course. In 2019 we are excited to also offer our lightly roasted green tea as well as more of our delicious Black Gold while our plants are getting bigger and producing a little more each year. In addition, we continue to plant and make chamomile herbal infusions and Scottish water mint infusions, both delicious.
We also very much cherish our wildflowers on the farm, some of which are in decline across the UK, and are planning to organise some wildflower days for everyone to enjoy. And not to forget from October this year our products will have the Soil Association organic stamp on them. We are so pleased about this.
Where can people buy your products?
Well, people interested in our products are always very welcome to contact us directly. I think it’s nice to be able to get in touch directly with a maker of a product. In addition, it’s early on and our products will be available in more places as we slowly increase the amount we produce. This year and next year we have our products in the lovely Eteaket in Edinburgh, and possibly also my favourite tea shop in London, Postcard Teas. Our hand-cut chamomile is also available from Nazani Tea, a specialist in high-quality herbal teas.
What are your hopes and fears for the future, both for the farm and the wider food world?
Let’s do hopes first. We hope that our plants continue to love their life and continue to flourish. We hope that our customers continue to support us and enjoy our teas and tisanes. For the food and drink world, I hope that we can move to better-quality products, which may be helped by using harvest year on the packaging. Many herbal infusions are very cheap and old, with little taste. I am personally worried that some of them may have an organic stamp on them – how useful is that if you end up with a grey chamomile infusion, that has lost all its vibrancy because it’s a few years old? This also applies to green tea. I believe it should have ‘use by’ and ‘harvest date’ on it. Use by doesn’t help the customer to know if this particular green tea is fresh from the present year, as it should be. So these are some hopes and wishes for positive change in the tea and tisane industry.
Fears, I find this harder to talk about because we all just want to avoid thinking about it. It’s easier to avoid the fact that across the world we may, in the near future, have increased problems with water scarcity, pollution, and climate change. It is very worrying, and I guess at Windy Hollow we try to do our bit to work towards a sustainable future. And hope our bit makes a difference.
Finally, why do you do what you do?
I do what I do because I believe in a different type of farming, where nature and soil are deeply respected as an equal to us. When we respect and support soil, water, trees, and air, we can work together to produce great food and drink products. They taste great and are truly sustainable. I do tea because I love the nuances of taste in high-quality tea, and that you can enjoy tea by yourself and with friends. It’s wonderful.
Photography © Monica Griesbaum
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