When you make a cup of tea you may not think too much of where it comes from - the tea industry certainly has a part to play in stimulating this conversation and a long way to go in terms of transparency. At Comins we believe that it is important to connect you with the people and places that grow the tea you enjoy with us. Why? Firstly because our partners have fascinating stories to tell but also because the insights they offer from their daily lives in tea explain why it is more important than ever to know where our tea comes from and to support growers who are striving for a fair and sustainable future in tea.
For this weeks blog we cross over to one of our partners in India - who produce our best selling Golden Tip Assam at one of their gardens - Khongea. In our last post we heard from Bhushan in Ilam Nepal where almost all of the tea is cultivated on small holdings. This is in stark contrast to India where traditionally-structured tea plantations, also known as estates, are still dominant. Much is invested in these large operations - according to estimates the tea industry is India's second largest employer with over 3.5 million people across 1,686 estates as well as in 157,504 small holdings; most of them women. Production of tea reached 1,233.14 million kg in 2015-16* [*Source IBEF.org] [cf Nepal's annual production, at 4.9 million kg in the 2013-2014 fiscal year* * [*Source Nikei Asian Review]].
[Map Credit : goo.gl/ZaFfeT]
In the West we increasing see positive press dedicated to 'small farms' and 'boutique teas' which, when set up in the right way and with the right expertise are undoubtably producing wonderful teas, but it is important to remember that there are hardworking pioneers in every part of the tea ecosystem and, in large estates like Khongea, there is much at stake with many lives dependent on their success and continued innovation. As many of who enjoy Golden Tip Assam tell us everyday - these large gardens under the right leadership - produce some truly exceptional teas.
Below we meet Anshuman - a 4th generation tea planter at Khongea Tea Estate in Assam - he kindly offers us an insight into his life and the unique challenges, complexities and opportunities facing the tea industry in Assam and Darjeeling where he and his family run their tea estates. It makes a fascinating read...
ANSHUMAN PRAKASH | | 4th Generation Tea Planter | Khongea Garden Assam
[Photo Credit : Khongea Tea Estate]
"Tea is a family business for me. Many holidays growing up were spent on the farm..hence the love for tea. I have worked in tea since 1998, after finishing college and I love the fact that it allows me to get involved in both agriculture as well as manufacturing. It has opened up many opportunities to apply ones creativity in product development and finding new markets in the specialty tea business which has growing interest. I also love the community aspect of running the tea plantation, and the ability to make a meaningful contribution in improving lives of people in the community. I love the fact that it is environmentally friendly and sustainable, and that what we produce is good for you. I love the tea fraternity of growers, I think they are a great bunch of people.
[Photo Credit : Khongea Tea Estate]
The main challenges at our gardens are to do with producing a high quality product cost effectively and in a sustainable manner. As the tea farmer and producer, we only get a small percentage of the earnings from sales of the final product. Tea is a very labour intensive operation, and retaining employees is becoming difficult. We can move towards using machines etc, but it will be almost impossible to achieve the same quality with machines, as we can with humans doing the tea picking. With labour costs rising, and our sale price not increasing at the same pace, the profit margins are getting squeezed, and not leaving enough funds for us to spend on development activities, which will hurt us in the future. In a nutshell – we need more money for our produce!
The other big challenge in production and managing quality is that the weather has become very unpredictable. We get very long periods of drought and then periods of excess rain in very short periods. In the “good old days” it would rain at night and and we would get plenty of sunlight during the day – these were ideal conditions. If it ever became too hot, it would rain. So the conditions were ideal.
Now we have to worry about drainage issues and water logging, as the water table is also rising. Because of all this, the yields have come down, and this drives up costs. Also, the conditions are not ideal, and therefore the quality of the raw material (green leaf) isn’t as conducive to quality as it used to be. [Read more about the soil policy implemented by Anshuman Prakash and his team here in this blog from head of marketing Nibir]
[Photo credit : TOM HORTON (Darjeeling)]
Day to day we have a professional management set up in the tea plantations in Darjeeling and Assam. The head office is in Kolkata from where all the quality control, marketing and sales takes place. While I am in Kolkata my time is spent on tasting all our tea samples, valuing the teas for sales, giving feedback to the plantations on quality matters. Also the finance and procurements is managed from Kolkata.
I visit the tea plantations personally every month for a few days each time, usually with other experts and consultants, to ensure that the various policies are being followed by the plantation management, and to assist them in various areas related to running the plantation. I drink tea throughout my working day. I like a strong cup of Assam tea in the morning with milk, and I usually drink many cups of Darjeeling tea throughout the day, without milk or sugar.
Presently & looking ahead I think these are testing times for the tea plantation owners. They have large overheads and fixed costs, and with cost of production steadily rising, the margins are are getting squeezed badly, and some plantations are in financial trouble. With so many workers dependent on their livelihoods from these plantations, this is not a good situation. The main opportunity is the fact that our teas from Darjeeling and Assam are unique, and difficult to source from anywhere else. Sure, you get interesting teas from China, Japan and other parts of the world, but you will never get the same strength and full body tea that you get from a good Assam from anywhere else, and the delicate aromatic flavour of a Darjeeling is also special.
There is a growing market and appreciation for specialty teas, and consumers are now beginning to appreciate the wide variety of teas available. Indian teas, if positioned properly will find a growing market, and needs to capitalize on this. The focus has to be on producing high quality teas and highlighting the unique characteristics of our teas. The customers are becoming much more educated, and interested in the story – and we have a compelling one! However, as I mentioned below, the tea producers need to earn more, so that they can pay more to all the workers behind producing that cup of tea. As India grows, and there are more opportunities and job mobility for workers, we need to make sure the tea plantations are able to retain the work-force, and continue producing high quality teas"
About Khongea Garden :-
Statistics : Elevation 300ft, 450 Dedicated Tea Hectares
Location : Khongea is situated in the upper reaches of Assam, on the south bank of the Brahmaputra River. This is the single largest tea growing region in the world producing good breakfast teas prized for their rich, malty, and robust cup character, that go well with or without milk. The finest Assam teas produced during Second Flush have chunky golden tips* [*Khongea Garden Statistics]
Harvest Calendar : The first harvest of the year starts in March after a long dormant period in the winter months. The best quality Assam teas are harvested in May and June, during the Second Flush period* [*Khongea Garden Statistics]