Sugimoto Farmer Spotlight: Eiji Matsuura
41 year old Eiji Matsuura is no stranger to hard work. Some would say he was born into the tea business. Eiji grew up in Higashiyama where tea farming reigned supreme, and the close knit agricultural community was the perfect incubator for the future green tea sommelier. Young Eiji watched the local farmers in Higashiyama hone their craft, utilizing knowledge passed down from generations that date so far back that no one is sure of their origin.
81 years of cooperation
Eiji is the proud member of a 19 family tea co-op. This co-op was established in 1940 and is celebrating its 81st anniversary this year. Originally they only produced regular medium-steamed sencha, but in 1960 they started producing fukamushi (deep-steamed) style sencha.
The co-op is inching towards the centennial mark, and their top priority is to not only remain relevant, but to remain environmentally minded. As of this writing, they continue to implement the “Chagusaba” farming method which is designated as a GIAHS (Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System) by the United Nations. Since teas from Eiji’s co-op are exported to other countries by Sugimoto, they hold to a particularly strict standard when it comes to practices such as pesticide use and water waste.
In addition to their environmentally minded means of cultivation, the co-op also holds a GAP certificate. This internationally recognized certificate of safety and related practices is remarkably difficult to attain.
Throughout its 81 year history, the co-op has made its mark in Shizuoka Province. While Shizuoka certainly has some discerning palates when it comes to green tea, Japan’s highest authority in tea production has also taken notice. To date, the co-op are six time recipients of the Agricultural Minister Award and have even won the Prime Minister Award. The esteem of these particular awards cannot be understated.
Eiji has individually received some of the highest awards in the international tea community, including the National Tea Tasting Competition in Japan. Another notable recipient of this high honor is none other than Sugimoto’s own Hiroyuki Sugimoto.
Eiji’s secret to success
As the name implies, this co-op truly is a cooperative affair. In order to germinate, maintain, and cultivate some of the finest teas on the planet, a farmer must have the knowledge and wherewithal. What makes an already difficult task seemingly impossible is the fact that Eiji has to produce tea alongside 18 other families who are all working towards the same goal. This means that all 19 families must hit a “home run” year after year, and they always pull it off.
Each family has their own unique characteristics to their individual process, but the overall method remains the same. Eiji believes that consistency is what is most important. The 19 farmers have tea fields in different locations and there is a need for these teas to, against all odds, remain consistent when processed. The tea from all 19 families is mixed together and processed in the same location. This makes the risks high, as one bad crop can affect an entire year’s batch.
The individual efforts of all involved help create one perfect product. If you ask Eiji what makes the perfect tea, you would expect his answer to be about pH balance or fertilizer ratios. The answer is almost disappointingly simple: it's teamwork.
A long look into the not-too-distant future
Farmers have planned around unforeseen circumstances for millenia. Even with incredible developments in technology, this fact connects humanity’s first agriculturalists to contemporary farmers. Agriculture was and still is humanity's last tie to the distant past.
While Eiji certainly doesn’t have that type of pressure on his shoulders, the stakes are higher than you might think. What calamity is plaguing his Shizuoka tea farm? It’s not a drought or locusts: it’s the aging population of the tea farmers.
Eiji predicts that within the next decade, the number of Japanese tea farmers will be halved. A startling amount do not have successors, and the average age of farmers continues to rapidly increases year after year. Many children of tea farmers eventually go off to college elsewhere in pursuit of more lucrative careers. The growing popularity of green tea worldwide put the farmers in a position to ensure the best education and opportunities for their children. In that regard, the tea industry is becoming a victim of its own success.
Many tea farmers, including Eiji, have even taken to social media to help preserve their trade. They work together to build a following and show people what’s happening on both individual farms and in the greater world of tea farming. Followers have helped rekindle an interest in the Japanese practice of tea farming. Eiji hopes it gets people out to the farms or inspires them to try the teas these farmers produce. He hopes it “makes some sort of impact.”
The Sugimoto difference
According to Eiji, a combination of the farmer relationships and the access to distribution that Sugimoto Tea Co. possesses is the bridge to the future for traditional Japanese tea farmers. By remaining unwavering in our dedication to preserving the art of traditional tea cultivation, it is our mission to continue shining a light on this important aspect of our Japanese heritage. By supporting Sugimoto, you are supporting farmers like Eiji.
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