Established in 2004, Poplarville’s JD Farms – named for its owners, Jeff Brown and Donald van de Werken – has long been known for its bounty of blueberries, but recently, the operation launched a new venture that’s already proving successful: Pearl River Tea.
In 2006, Brown and van de Werken were searching for a crop to cultivate during their blueberry crop’s dormant season. The business partners found their answer as they listened to Felder Rushing discuss Camellia sinensis plants (also known as tea plants) on his Mississippi Public Broadcasting Think Radio program, The Gestalt Gardener. There, they learned tea was originally grown in southern Mississippi – and it just so happens the plants thrive in a similar soil as blueberries. So, they decided to give it a shot.
“We had never even considered growing tea plants, but we did our research and decided it made sense for our operation,” van de Werken says. “We’ve traveled across the U.S. and to China and India, and we’ve made connections in Australia, all so we could perfect this art form of growing and producing tea. It’s been a fun, wild ride.”
According to van de Werken, shortly after being inspired by the radio show, he purchased 800 tea cuttings from an operation in North Carolina and planted them in a greenhouse. Two short years later, they were ready to be planted in a field on JD Farms.
Next, van de Werken connected with Dr. Guihong Bi, a Mississippi State University (MSU) research professor in ornamental horticulture, as well as former MSU research associate Judson LeCompte, both of whom helped the business partners learn how to make tea.
“We purchased all of our equipment from China and had no idea what to do with it – even getting it to work was a challenge – and Dr. Bi and Judson LeCompte graciously gave us a quick course in tea making,” van de Werken says. “Over time, we’ve learned to make it our own way, which we call the ‘Mississippi way,’ but we couldn’t have gotten where we are today without a lot of help.”
As they were honing their tea-making process, van de Werken and Brown looked to their customers at the Crescent City Farmers Market in New Orleans for help. They offered tea samples to those purchasing their blueberries and asked for feedback, and after listening, they were finally ready to launch Pearl River Tea in 2017.
Commercial tea production officially began for Pearl River Tea in 2017, and today JD Farms comprises 120 acres with 10,000 tea plants – a far cry from the 800 plants van de Werken began with – as well as 25 acres of blueberries.
See more: 10 Tasty Blueberry Recipes
The company currently offers 11 varieties of tea, including their classic Pearl River Black variety, an assortment of green teas, a gingerbread-flavored tea featuring orange peel and cinnamon, and an Earl Grey.
In addition, van de Werken and Brown have incorporated their blueberries into their teas, creating a Black/Blue variety with dried blueberries and lemon that’s especially popular as an iced beverage during warm weather months.
“Adding in blueberries is just one way we’ve made our stamp on tea making,” van de Werken says. “We also use pizza ovens to roast our black tea. It’s certainly not the norm, but it works well for us.”
JD Farms also became the first tea company in the U.S. to be GAP-certified (Good Agricultural Practices), which means they’ve been audited by the USDA to verify their products are produced, packed, handled and stored as safely as possible. In the future, they plan to continue serving customers locally and beyond, working to broaden their scope to include international markets.
“Our products are very consistent and reliable because we do it all – we grow, harvest, cut, roast and process the tea ourselves – and our customers always know they’re getting fresh, high-quality products when they do business with us,” Brown says. “Plus, Mississippians love supporting their fellow residents; that’s been a huge help as we’ve grown and evolved over the years.” |