Anyone for tea?
Poppy Baggott explains how her family's livestock farm has diversified into a refreshingly new sector.
As I write, the Prime Minister has just triggered Article 50 to begin the process of exiting the European Union.
With the future of farm subsidies and prospective trade agreements uncertain, innovation and diversification are as important now for landowners as they have ever been.
My family has a livestock farm on the coast in South West Scotland. In its heyday, the farm was part of a larger estate, and three walled gardens remain as an epitaph to those times. Over the past 30 years, these gardens have played host to a herd of wild boar, pheasant pens, and Christmas trees, the latter growing into a commercial sitka crop which was felled in April last year. Rather than replant, we decided to take the opportunity to diversify and have since planted 500 Camellia Sinensis - tea plants.
All traces of the former sitka plantation had to be removed (top) before the old walled garden could be transformed into a home for the new tea plants.
This was a hugely exciting step for us, but of course the road to the first cuppa from our own plantation is long and arduous.
Before we could consider buying the plants we had to ascertain the pH of the soil, which is make or break when it comes to tea growing. A pH of 4.5-5.5 is ideal. Happily for us, South West Scotland has the right soil acidity for camellias, and the walled gardens are no exception.
Summer last year was devoted to removing all trace of the sitka crop from the ground. Brash, stumps and roots all had to go, leaving a clean slate for the tea plants. Before planting, we covered the whole area with a weed suppressant membrane to reduce the weeding workload. We then planted the tea plants down through it, placing shrub guards and horticultural fleece over each plant to protect them from the elements of their first Scottish Winter.
Camellia Sinensis is the plant from which all tea flows - green, white and black all come from the same bush. It is the different methods of processing which create the individual teas. Growing tea is incredibly interesting and intricate in that the tea plants will absorb elements of their atmosphere and location, which will then affect the taste of the end product. This means that while growing jasmine or roses near your tea may produce an interesting and fragrant brew, certain composts or fertilisers are definitely to be avoided. A Scottish Tea Growers' Association was established last year which growers can join to benefit from the support and experience of other growers.
We continue to learn as we go along, but there are two elements of our future tea industry to consider.
First and foremost, we intend to produce some signature high-end teas for retail, and secondly, we hope to reap the benefits of the nascent "tea tourism" sector.
There is a growing number of tea gardens in Scotland, from the Borders to the Lothians, Perthshire and even the Highlands and Islands and it is hoped that tourists will come to sample a fresh brew and find out more about the Scots' other favourite drink!
Our first flush of tea should be ready to pluck this summer. We now have another garden to clear and prepare - and to spur us on we have the knowledge that last year tea from Scotland was sold to...China!
Watch this space!