Just south of the border between India and Bhutan, in the foothills of the Himalayas, a man named Tenzing grows black Assam tea. The plants grow about waist-high, but their value lies in just a few inches: the tip of the plant and two leaves, which are harvested, shipped, and brewed at the Lake Missoula Tea Company or in the homes of Montanans.
Tenzing is the first farmer to produce Elephant Friendly Tea, certified by the University of Montana's Broader Impacts Group and the Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network. For the last month, Lake Missoula Tea Company's shelves have been home to Bodo Black Assam tea, straight from Tenzing's farms and named for his ethnic group, the Bodos.
While Tenzing's two farms in India's Assam region are well suited for growing tea, they're also in Asian elephant habitat. As that habitat is lost to human development, elephants often become a nuisance and a danger, damaging fields, trees, fences and houses.
Tenzing is in his early thirties and has been farming since he was a teenager. He was already working toward making his farm organic and wildlife-friendly when he found Lisa Mills on Facebook in 2015. Mills, who now works for the Broader Impacts Group, had been doing grant-funded elephant conservation in India since 2011, and Tenzing reached out to her for advice on dealing with elephants.
"He was already pretty much a model of elephant friendliness," Mills says.
Elephants don't eat tea plants, but they're still often in conflict with the farms. To be certified as elephant friendly, a farm has to widen its drainage ditches so small elephants don't get trapped in them, remove unsafe electric fences from elephant paths and commit to organic growing methods that forgo potentially poisonous fertilizers and pesticides.
Jake Kreilick, who owns Lake Missoula Tea Company, says he sells the Bodo tea for the same price as the shop's previous Assam tea. Fifty grams of Bodo tea cost $2.75 more than the shop's cheapest black tea, according to its website. But by bypassing auction houses and middlemen, Mills says, Tenzing makes about five times as much profit.
A self-described "hard-core enviro," Kreilick has always aimed to source his tea from small farmers. He sees elephant-friendly certification as a way to provide an economic reason for farmers to tolerate elephants at a time when cultural and religious reasons may be fading.
The next step for Mills is to certify more farms and, through a percentage of tea sales, set up a grant fund for projects helping elephants and preserving their habitat. Kreilick is focused on marketing the tea and getting it into Montana stores. Caffe Dolce brews all its iced tea from Bodo leaves, which are also available at the Good Food Store and the Billings zoo.
"It's got such a sweetness to it. It's incredible," he says. "This batch that he sent us is the best yet."This article has been updated to correct Lisa Mills' name.