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Bush tea.

Jacquel Dawson calls Louis T. Berry "one of may farmers." But a visitor to Berry's farm on 32-square-mile St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands is forced to ask: "Where's the farm?"

Berry and his wife Mary live in a pleasant house built on a 45[degrees] slope about 800 feet above the Caribbean Sea. Berry smiles as he gestures his visitor to his farm, which he calls "my farm garden." There, in tiny plots of earth, Berry is growing collard greens, cashews, celery, tomatoes, bananas, breadfruit, mangoes, avocados and, most important of all, bush tea.

Bush tea is a Virgin Islands and Caribbean tradition. There are at least 420 different kinds of bushes in St. Thomas alone that provide aromatic flavors in their leave. It is traditional among West Indians to sip tea made from these leaves first thing in the morning, last thing at night, and sometimes for such ailments as head colds, tension, indigestion, coughs, and other problems.

But not until Jacquel Dawson, a native St. Thomian, did anyone think to organize bush tea into a real business, stressing that all these teas have one attribute that could make them particularly commercial. They contain no caffeine.

A few years ago, Dawson, an agronomist with a degree from the University of Florida, was searching for some kind of product that would help St. Thomas farmers, a product that didn't take up too much land or water. A product that could be marketed to the million cruise ship passengers and 600,000 overnight tourists who come to St. Thomas annually. Bush tea filled the bill, with the health-conscious bonus of no caffeine.

Jackie Dawson started Agricultural Services Unlimited and zeroed in on Project Bush Tea while performing other jobs. It wasn't until December, 1992, she said, that "the first bag of tea was produced." Then the pace picked up. St. Thomas Hospital began using bush tea for 180 patients.

Dawson organized the processing and packaging of the tea leaves. The tea retails at $2.95 a packet, and in the first year or so of production, said Dawson, Project Bush Tea produced between 15,000 and 20,000 bags of tea.

To grow the tea, about 50 St. Thomas farmers, like Louis T. Berry, grow the bushes on little plots of land. They picking the leaves, "making sure there's not too much stem," according to Dawson.

The dried leaves are then taken to a processor, said Dawson, who are mostly housewives on the island's north side who come together and pull off the remaining stems. The finished product goes to the packagers" - other women in the community - and they put the tea into bags, gift boxes, gift mugs, and other containers for distribution.

Though there are around 420 types of bushes that can be used for tea, Dawson has limited the kinds of bush tea leaves she wants to 25 kinds, with the deciding factors being taste or palatability." Eventually, she says, she may go to as many as 30 types, but right now 25 is the limit. Among their common Virgin Islands names are Tamarind Inflammation Bush, Ginger Thomas, Black Wattle, Lemongrass, Japana, Spanish Needle, Soursop, Cattle Tongue, Sweet Marjoram, Spearmint Purple Balsam, Wormgrass and Worry wine.

"Bush tea has been part of the culinary lifestyle of the people of the Virgin Islands in particular and the Caribbean in general for hundreds of years," said Dawson. "We've pretty much stopped eating fungi or kallaloo (two old time West Indian specialties), but we all still drink bush tea. Even though the culture has changed, bush tea has survived - it's readily available, accepted, and ingested."

Farmer Louis Berry says his "farm garden" can produce 1,000 pounds of Japana a month. Dawson's price for the bush tea leaves varies between $2 and $5 a pound - but even the lowest price is a boon to Berry, who grew up 150 yards from his present house and remembers how he used to ride a mule to Market Square in downtown Charlotte Amalieon on a trail when he was a kid.

Berry says he has no problem growing the bush tea, primarily because he has a 50,000-gallon cistern so that he can keep his bushes watered.

In addition to the tea for drinking, Dawson sees such spin-offs as bush tea baths, in which you put five teas together for therapy and bush tea salves. Her vision is for Virgin Islands rum producers to mix the bush tea herbs with rum. She wants to make St. Thomas the Tea Capital of the Caribbean, with a big sign at Cyril King Airport welcoming tourists in just that way.

As a folk medicine, she says, the teas have been traditionally consumed in moderation, and they do contain certain medicinal properties - "but please consult a physician before ingesting."

All the promotion and marketing of bush tea has left Dawson with a considerable financial problem. She has created a demand - among tourists and even among so-called Continentals from the mainland U.S. now living in St. Thomas - for her product, but she acknowledges she needs capital for expansion.

She's applied for a $150,000 loan from the Virgin Islands Small Business Development Agency and her detailed loan package's plan forecasts sales of $9.5 million by 1998. The funding, or just a part of it, would let Dawson open retail operations at St. Thomas Airport, a manufacturing plant on the neighboring Virgin Island of St. Croix and, possibly, a retail operation at another gathering point for tourists on St. Thomas.

"The detailed loan package has great potential," said Charles Aughtry, director of the Minority Business Development Center in St. Thomas. "I'm very optimistic about the loan and admire Jackie Dawson's perseverance and commitment." In 1990, Dawson sought an agronomist's job with the Virgin Islands Economic Development Agency which proved, she said, to be "too dynamic."

"I began work in January 1991, after working voluntarily with farmers for six months. I understood the farmers' plight and worked on projects to help them," said Dawson

By the end of September, 1991, she said, "I was terminated for disturbing the peace and developing programs nobody asked me to develop."

Today, Dawson feels free to do a job that makes a difference to the farmers, as well as the retailers and consumers of bush tea. Both Dawson and bush tea seem to have a bright caffeine-free future.
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Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:made in Virgin Islands and other Caribbean countries
Author:Steif, William
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Sep 1, 1994
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