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Wednesday Wisdom with KC & Michelle Week 6 : Winter in Darjeeling & Assam : A Glimpse at activity in January & February

It is wonderful to share that KC and I have re-started our weekly discussions.  After the busy Christmas period and other commitments it has brought real joy to speak with him again around topics we are both passionate about.  Indeed I was delighted to have a distanced conversation with another walker the other day about mycorrhizal plants something we discussed in relation to tea in a previous blog - I was so pleased to discuss my studies with this plant loving fellow human.  I am still working on another much more in depth blog about Darjeeling and its gardens  which I hope to share soon but for now I would like to discuss the activity taking place in the hills during these winter months.
Come Spring you will find tea feeds buzzing with activity about the tea gardens, the new fresh teas of Spring and the tea bushes glowing green and framed by bright blue skies.  But what of the winter months?  Little is shared about what happens during that time - so lets make that the topic of this discussion!  All photos here are kindly shared by KC who visited both Assam & Darjeeling in January [picture below : Assam].  As always KC : thank you! 

In winter
 the tea plant is exhausted, resting, conserving its energy in the roots.  When it starts to flush in the Spring there will be a flow of nutrients upwards - the plant will need to be ready.  Tea plants are extremely wise - they calculate what they need to do and when they need to do it.  It will ultimately be the sun that is the main trigger for growth in the Spring - tea plants will only flush if the day is long - as a 'long day plant' they like the sun to rise at 6am and set at 4pm.  [picture below : Assam]

In the winter it is gloomy and cold, temperature and moisture are both limited and the tea plant must be supported.   It may surprise you to learn that many seasonal workers need to be employed to ensure that tea bushes thrive in this period- up to 4000 optional workers - 100s more needed on organic gardens just to make the compost and soil preparations mentioned below.  As KC explains - 'this is the time where we must secure the future of the tea bushes for the rest of the year'  [picture below Darjeeling]

There is much reported in the news about workers in the tea gardens and although not the purpose of this blog KC did share some interesting developments with me about current changes happening in India.  Im sure this is something we will return to in the months to come :-


'With so much work to be done throughout the year we are struggling with the availability of workers in the Indian tea industry.  As you may be aware wages for tea workers are fixed with the government and the unions - it is not possible for us to pay more or less than is stated in wages.  You may also be aware that the 'money in hand' for tea workers is often discussed as being less than in other industries because much of what is paid is built into a system of education, healthcare and housing to name but a few.  This means nearly 50% is in cash currently and 50% in benefits.  What you may not be aware of is that industries such as rubber, coffee and tea (plantation crops) are not governed by the ministry of agriculture ( it is actually managed by the ministry of Finance & Industries)   and as such these do not come under purview of priority sector for nationalised banks a - making it difficult to get loans and finance to support essential works.  All of this is about to be reformed - the government is bringing in COW [code of Wages] from June 2021 and as part of this workers wages will be revised to 85% cash in hand. We need to plan for this and as such we offer incentives and bonuses throughout the year for essential and important activities such as the soil works we will discuss in this blog.  You may find yourself thinking that the inevitable solution to the workforce diminishing is mechanisation - this is a much bigger debate than is possible here - but as one simple point consider that Darjeeling is not easy to mechanise due to steep slopes and organic agriculture is also very labour intensive - and you start to understand the challenges.  Tea is a resilient industry and we must embrace change but the question is how we maintain productivity - and with productivity I do not mean simply human productivity - the productivity of the soil, tea plant and people is intricately intertwined.  It always surprises me that even though we know how important the soil is, how critical it is to pass on our traditional agricultural knowledge, we still have no organic agriculture universities.  Perhaps one solution to keeping people in this industry would be to elevate these skills - make people understand their value and therefore install pride in following a career along this path'


Let us return to the winter works that these skilled hands are required for : At the centre of the work is, of course the soil.   So let us turn our attention to this topic as we so often do in these blogs - KC shares 'In the summer everything is out-worldly, in the winter everything is in-worldly'  What does this mean?  Well consider how in the winter we are shivering in the cold yet the soil is full of activity.  It is inwardly using energy that it has received from outside the plant in summer.  'With all of this activity taking place in the winter it is the time of year that we need to take the most care of the soil'  .This is in contrast to the summer when the plants take centre stage receiving out-worldly energy.  [picture below Assam]

Why is all this soil care so important?
  Well let's pause a moment to consider the weather : the weather throughout the year in Assam & Darjeeling is highly variable with March and May [Spring and Summer] and October [Autumn] being the most favourable in terms of temperature [higher], sunlight [longer] and rainfall [less].  Between mid June to mid September it is the monsoon season where it almost continuously rains & remains foggy & overcast.  Tea bushes like moisture but cannot sustain water logging.  This is not so much of a problem in Darjeeling but in Assam the water table is comparatively high and water logging is possible.  For soil to be in optimum shape for year round conditions - i.e. be able to provide moisture to plants in the dry season and to avoid becoming water logged in the monsoon it needs to be prepared!  The main body of this blog focuses on 'nourishing' soil activities but there are some more practicalworks that need to take place to help avoid water logging.  KC explains 'In Assam in these months drains are therefore also dug - effective tea root length ( over the board, averaged out from all cultivars)  can go down to 3ft and so drains are dug to this depth.  Every 80ft in addition to the drains along the rows of the tea plant we also dig a drain that carries water away to the main drain'  There is no point reaching August and finding you have water logging issues - by then the monsoon will put a stop to any works taking place - everything must be anticipated in advance [picture below Assam]


How can soil be best 'prepared' for the year ahead?  

First some background : KC explains 'Soil needs to have good fungi and microbes.  Mycelium : 'the vegetative part of a fungus or fungus-like bacterial colony, consisting of a mass of branching, thread-like hyphae' are critical.  These form around the roots of plants and trees and nourish plant life : helping plants absorb nutrients and water [you may remember us discussing the mycorrhizal network before here] In conventional soils there are simply not enough microbes in the soil to take the moisture - organic soil, with far greater concentrations of organic matter will have more fungi to harvest the moisture.  Importantly the fungi and actinomycetes [a soil micro-organism that we will return to in a later blog but which, in short are the most prolific producers of bioactive natural products] then supply the moisture they have absorbed slowly ensuring that the soil has a supply through the drier months.  But do we even need to worry about this with modern irrigation for poorly managed soils?  'It has been proven worldwide that the irrigation makes plants idle.  If you ask me if it is a friend of foe I would say foe - it is a short term solution'
Now to the activities : What activities are taking place in winter to secure the future health of the tea bushes and the soil which nourishes them?  

KC shares 'By the 31st of December most gardens have completed their pruning -  light pruning of the tea bushes.  By the first week of January skiffings [to learn more about skipping see our previous blog] are complete. Heavy pruning/ rejuvenative pruning is done in February after ample rest of the bushes  Tea bushes are pruned in a sequence throughout the months of January and February.  Every plot of tea bushes undergoes a particular pruning once in every 5 years in Darjeeling and 4 years in Assam  and this is the opportunity for bush cleaning or sanitation - if you miss the opportunity to do this at this time then you may have problems later down the line [picture below Darjeeling]

What does Bush Sanitation Involve? : The person involved in this process must carefully look at the tea bushes to notice any areas of weakness.  In particular they are looking to clear lichen from cracks and crevices with a lime solution which should be applied only in the area affected - not universally.  Lichen is a homogeneous body of fungi & algae - the algae form on the plant and then in turn attract fungal which feed off them - it is a disturbing parasite for a tea plant taking nutrients.  The lime also serves to eliminate the eggs of insects which may have been laid in cracks and crevices.  This may seem completely out of sync with an organic approach - after all KC told us in an earlier blog that 'it is best to start our thinking along the lines that are no 'pests' only insects'.  KC Shares 'My belief is that we should be cutting back on the about of lime and copper we use - even though it is considered acceptable in organic agriculture.  Tea loves both copper and sulphur and, in dealing with localised outbreaks of lichen and circumstances where insects have become pests they provide an effective short term solution.  However let's remember that when we start to class insects as 'pests' this is often as a result of changes in the environment that have enabled them to proliferate in a certain way.  By going after the pest we are not fixing the problem - we need to seek to understand the root cause.  If a fungi is causing havoc there is imbalance - too much water - let's look to fix it.  Additionally when we apply lime and copper it will continue to have residual activity long after we apply it.  So lets say the environmental balance returns and the insect is no long a pest but simply an insect in a balanced ecosystem - now with this residual activity we may continue to harm it and therefore enter into a cycle where our actions encourage imbalance leading to more problems later down the line.  

Timing is critical!!! Do not delay!! : Just as the pruning takes place once every five years offering an opportunity to selectively 'sanitise' the tea bush winter provides the perfect conditions for this to take place.  Why?  Well lichen is hard to remove - in the winter they dry out - in January when it is dry Lime can be applied and then, in February, once the lime is dry it can be rubbed removing both it and the lichen at the same time.  Any later than this and the first nutrient rich buds full of energy will be also be scraped off - this will spell disaster.  As KC explains 'Agriculture is the management of energy - anything that destroys energy is counter-productive!'

Other activities : Cleaning the soil : After bush sanitation the workers undertake the first 'clean' of the soil - this rids the soil of weeds that are not good for the tea plants - KC explains 'we don't simply discard these weeds - they have taken energy out of the soil - it is stored within them - we chop them into small pieces and  use them to make compost to give back to the soil.  Much of February is taken up with this activity of 'recycling energy' [picture below Darjeeling]

After pruning the soil works begin.  'We apply some viri-preparations - such as the cow preparations and the compost starter as well as older compost.  This starts in January takes place once in February and lastly in March - it is only a winter activity.

What is a compost starter? 'Well, a compost pile has exists in a state of degradation : when the temperature is right [after about 7-10 days] some of the compost is separated out from the 'core' and put into a bath of water to give a solution - this is the compost tea and the microbes within it are then ready to 'start their job'.  So why is this applied in the winter?  Well if we now put all the pieces of this jigsaw together - the tea trees have been pruned, and their prunings along with the weeds are in the soil [it is really only organic farmers that leave them in the soil].  If the tea plant is able to digest these it will benefit both them and the soil.  The 'compost tea/starter' helps to compost all the prunings and enrich the soil for the spring - we need to remember that in order for a tea plant to flower and fruits it takes a lot of energy - the soil will need to be nutrient rich to support it.  All through the winter the roots will continue to take in minerals - for example silica for the development and maintenance of xylem and phloem 'the pipes of the plant'.  All the while the plant will continue to send all of its food to the roots for reserve - ready for the activity of the Spring [picture below Darjeeling]

Let us conclude by moving outside of the plant itself to the place that will be humming with activity some the Spring - the factory! 'The factory needs to be prepared - cleaned and given a lick of paint, machine maintenance' KC explains

Perhaps now you will never look at dormant tea fields and quiet factories in winter in the same way again!  Underneath that calm exterior is an abundance of activity

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