Tea as a crop suffers from a variety of damaging pests and disease. In South India, the main problems occur because of a leaf fungus disease called Blister Blight in the wet weather, and varieties of leaf-damaging mites in the dry weather. Each of these, if left uncontrolled, could cause up to 30% loss of crop. Apart from questions of yield and quality, this was also a factor in selecting Oothu, the then highest-yielding estate, for conversion - Oothu is a fully clonal estate planted with several vegetatively propagated clones that were bred for resistance to Blister Blight and drought. Organic cultivation standards demand that no artificial pesticide, weedicide, or fungicide, is used. Also, no form of artificial chemical fertilizer is used or permitted.
Tea requires large amounts of fertilizer to compensate for the biomass being removed by constant plucking. This was previously provided by chemical fertilizer and had to be substituted by organic fertilizer. Large-scale in-house compost making was started, using locally available green matter and cattle manure. In addition, residual cake from the extraction of oil from oil seeds such as Castor and Neem were applied as these were known to be rich in nutrients. These too were sourced from inspected cold press oil mills, and no cake from the chemical solvent extraction process was used. As well as providing nutrients, these applications to the soil helped enormously in improving the tilth and water-holding capacity of the soil, thus helping in preventing erosion of the topsoil.
Vermiculture was started, earthworms being nature's most efficient compost makers. Whilst this took care of some of the nutrition requirements of the tea bush, shade regulation helped in minimizing Blister Blight, and an additional bonus was discovered when it was noticed that the Neem cake being applied to the soil was acting as a repellent to the mite. Neem has been known for its repellent properties in India for many years.
|Application of compost and burial of prunings
All this took great commitment and a leap of faith. The costs went up considerably, and all work was manual - no chemical weeding. Where chemical fertilizers were applied at a few hundred kilograms per hectare, compost and oil-seed cake were required in tons per hectare, shooting the cost of labor upward. And, as the cost of labor is 60% of the cost of tea, this was significant.
The People and
None of this work would have been possible without the total commitment of the people involved. The workers took to organic cultivation with great ease and willingness - after all, it was not too long ago that it was the norm for all agriculture in India. Organic cultivation seems to have a powerful effect on people. Managers who worked at Oothu became near fanatical about it as if all their atavistic instincts were aroused by the closer communion with nature and its ways. The workers were perceptibly happier at not using chemicals, and claimed better health.
The environment also responded. In this enclave in the forest, bird life in the tea fields noticeably increased. Insect life, the most affected by the use of chemicals, resumed as old food chains were restored. The soils felt spongier underfoot like forest floors, rather than the near hardpan of conventional fields. There was little doubt that the 'right thing' was being done.
The members of the workforce in Singampatti, in spite of their isolation, enjoy all the benefits of their counterparts elsewhere. There are bazaar areas to meet their needs, places of worship for all religions, primary schools for the children, and a government-run high school. A regular bus service provides easy access to the plain, medical needs are looked after by a 50-bed hospital with two fully qualified doctors and paramedical staff, and there are crèches to care for infant children whilst mothers work. The corporation provides all amenities as it does at its other properties. All in all, it is a self-contained community.
The Product and the Market
In 1990 and 1991, when the areas under organic cultivation in Oothu were fully certified, the demand for organic food products was still in its infancy. At that time, many tea importers and traders in Europe were reluctant to buy the higher-priced organic tea, as consumer awareness and demand for products free from chemical residue was low. However, in the following years, there was a growing awareness, and Oothu teas became popular in the Netherlands, Germany, Japan, the U.K., and the U.S. Oothu produces mainly black orthodox tea. It also produces a smaller amount of premium green organic tea which is unique in character and flavor.
|Preparation of compost heaps for organic fertilizer
As the market grew, albeit slowly, both these products found ready buyers. Today the market for organic tea shows all the signs of growing at a much faster pace, and more producers have entered the market. Organic teas are available from North India - from both Assam and Darjeeling - as well as from China and East Africa, and supermarkets now carry organic teas on their shelves in a special section. Certainly, all the signs point to a surge in consumer demand not only for organic tea, but for all organic food products. And in this market, Oothu tea is well known and has an enviable reputation.
Tea is a cheap, natural, and refreshing beverage with enormous health benefits, which have been known in the east for centuries and have now been scientifically proven. Several researchers have indicated that the high antioxidant properties of tea, amongst having other health benefits, help to control hypertension. Today, tea is available to the consumer in many forms, from the traditional hot cup of tea with milk and sugar, to iced tea, flavored tea, and ready-to-drink tea in cans. However, increasing competition from other beverages and especially the high-profile, artificial, soft drink sector, has pushed tea somewhat into the background. The industry as a whole needs to bring to the awareness of the consumer the benefits of tea consumption.
The tea producers in South India have to fight for their profits. With higher wages, costs in South India are higher than those of their counterparts in the north east, and also higher than those of competitors in other countries in the region such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. To remain competitive, it is essential for them to add value and innovation to their product. It is no longer sufficient to simply be a commodity level player in the market, given its very volatile nature. Whilst some have successfully become producer-packagers and have entered the retail markets, others, like Bombay Burma, have moved into specialty products such as organically cultivated tea.
And so, an industry that is more than one hundred years old goes on.
Dinshah Daruvala joined the Plantation Division of The Bombay Burmah Trading Corp. Ltd. in 1970 after a stint in the Indian army. He has been with Bombay Burmah ever since and has worked on all its coffee and tea plantations in South India. Apart from his time in marketing and a short period at the corporate head office in Bombay, he has spent all his time on the plantations. He is today the general manager of plantations and looks after all of Bombay Burmah's plantation interests.