Where we are in Texas, the plant is ubiquitous,” said Abianne Falla, “Everyone knows it. People cut it back, bulldoze it, burn it. It tends to take over everything.”
Falla was talking about yaupon, a scrubby, rugged evergreen with waxy leaves, like holly. It seems to be as determined to thrive as some residents of Cat Spring, Texas were to raze it. When, in 2011 the small Texas town experienced one of its worst droughts in history, the 100-year old oaks were dying of thirst, the wells were dry and the fields scorched. But the yaupon plant was still growing wild. It’s why Falla co-founded CatSpring Yaupon Tea with her sister JennaDee Detro in 2013.
The only caffeinated plant indigenous to North America, yaupon had been a part of native rituals long before Europeans came. But in recent times, it’s been seen as more of a nuisance than anything else. That’s where Falla saw sustainable opportunity – taking something that would otherwise be an energy drain and turning it into an energy gain. Where people were once investing their resources in getting rid of the yaupon, they’re now harvesting crops.
“Here’s this resource that people have been destroying for generations,” said Falla, “and it actually has incredible value that they’re now utilizing.”
“We need to know our community, to understand the best way to work with landowners, employees, and customers.”
The leaves of the yaupon are harvested, dried, and steeped. That’s why it’s so crucial that the process be organic: tea is one of the only things we consume that is never washed. So the moment those leaves are submerged in hot water, any chemicals sprayed on them would steep right into the drink. CatSpring Yaupon Tea goes beyond organic -- nothing touches these plants but sunshine and rain water.
But Falla’s argument is that sustainability is about more than what’s being harvested, how and where. It’s about the people who are doing the harvesting, and the impact this business has on them.
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“We define success as when everyone in our community succeeds,” said Falla. “We need to know our community, to understand the best way to work with landowners, employees, and customers.”
The sisters started a program called CatSpring People First Employment, in which they try to address inequities in the justice system. They work directly with probation officers who help identify people who want to turn their lives around, as well as with organizations committed to re-integrating people into society.
“Whether it was a minor brush with the law or exiting the sex trade, we’re searching for people who may otherwise be hard pressed to find employment,” said Falla. “We’re looking for them the same way they’re looking for us.”
More than half of their 14 employees have come through probation officers or through collaborations with organizations committed to ending sex trafficking and other forms of modern-day slavery, and helping survivors re-integrate into society. Because many of the workers at Cat Spring Yaupon Tea are still in need of protection, Falla preferred not to name the organizations that connected them, but she points to an organization doing similar work called Allies Against Slavery in Austin.
The rest of their workers found CatSpring Yaupon through word of mouth. On their website, there’s a link you can click) to refer people in need of employment.
Take G, for example. Falla didn’t want to use her name because she didn’t want to exploit her story any more than she had already been exploited in the past. G has been working on production for CatSpring Yaupon for two years, and has had health problems in addition to the struggles of poverty and the broken criminal justice system.
“Because I have a disease,” G said in an email response to VICE Impact, “I had to go all the time to the hospital. CatSpring Yaupon has given me the opportunity to have the flexible hours. I’ve always asked God to give me a job like this… We feel like family.”
Falla sees the hardy plant itself as a good analogy to the people who have suffered through injustice.
“Here’s this amazing plant that’s being overlooked and undervalued and destroyed,” said Falla. “And here are so many individuals in our community who are overlooked, undervalued and destroyed. Through our People First Employment initiative, we are taking a stand against some of these inequities.”