By T. Jensen Lacey

There is an old adage that goes something like “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” For Donnie and Lottie Barrett, this saying fits them to a “tea” (pun intended). 

The Barretts are owners and managers of the Fairhope Tea Plantation, which had its beginnings in the aftermath of Hurricane Frederick back in 1979. “I was dumping some hurricane debris at the Auburn University Research and Extension Center,” Donnie recalled, “and the Lipton Tea Company had been doing experiments [on tea plantings] there.” He said the research project had ended, and all the tea plants were in burn piles. “My dad Bill, who was back then an agricultural research scientist and the Center’s superintendent, was with me and said, ‘Get you some of these.’” This was the day that would change the course of Donnie Barrett’s life.

Besides planting, rooting, and caring for these first tea plants, Donnie’s main focus in life became a mission to learn all he could about growing and making those plants into something people could enjoy as a beverage. No one in the United States could or would tell him how to do this, so in 1984 he made his first research trip to the tea capital of the world: China. 

“Back then,” he said, “it was not Westernized like it is today.” His visits took him not to pagodas and temples in the big cities, but to tea farms and factories where he could learn all about tea production. ”Tea plants are very picky,” Donnie explained. “They need slightly acidic soil, lots of water, and careful pruning. It took me ten years before Fairhope Tea was of a good enough quality to sell.”

Those ten years also taught Donnie Barrett a lot. “All tea comes from the same plant,” he said. “Simply drying leaves from the plant doesn’t by itself make tea. Making tea from the leaves and stems is a family and industrial secretive process.”

The Barretts’ tea farm changed names several times, from Hurricane Blend to Lytermanor Tea Farm (after the street where the farm is located), to Fairhope Tea Company, and finally, Fairhope Tea Plantation. Now regarded as the oldest tea farm in the U.S. (“By eight years,” Donnie says), Fairhope Tea Plantation is open by appointment for tours lasting approximately one hour.  

The tour includes a cup of tea, an educational talk about tea, a tour (via golf cart) of the tea farm (including watching Donnie Barrett rake tea in the drying bed), a tea plant, and an offer of packaged loose-leaf tea or tea bags to take home. 

The Barretts are constantly experimenting with trials and taste tests to make their finished product even better. “We make green tea and black tea,” Donnie Barrett said, “and we sell the tea locally.” Currently, the tea is available for sale at the farm and two places: Copper Roof Antiques on Fairhope Avenue, Fairhope, and Copper Kettle Tea Bar in Foley.

Do the Barretts enjoy the tea plantation lifestyle? Above the cacophony of their many peacocks calling to each other, Lottie Barrett smiled and said, “Donnie seems happiest when he’s outside among his tea plants, picking tea.”

Their website is To call and make an appointment for a tour, their number is 251.928.0919. The physical address is 12424 Lyter Lane, Fairhope.

May 29, 2024
People & Business Profiles

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