Man versus Machine

Harvesting tea leaves by hand or by mechanical devices is a highly topical question. Transitioning from man to machines is a major decision with many variables, which will heavily impact company investment and marketing strategy.

By Barbara Dufrêne  All photos courtesy of Barbara Dufrêne unless otherwise noted

Expanding acreage, limiting production costs, increasing output and insufficient labour availability are major issues for tea producers globally, be they smallholders or multinational companies. Hand-picked teas claim to have superior quality, but equipment manufacturers and plant engineers speed up the process better machines, creating efficiencies.

The recently issued 2016 Annual Bulletin of Statistics edited by the London-based International Tea Committee, provides a wealth of data that show wide disparities between the average yields of made tea per hectare (ha) around the world. One of the explanations is certainly the size of the share of mechanically-harvested teas. Turkey shows the highest average yield in the world with 3,270kgs of made tea per ha, and in fact almost 100 percent of the leaves are mechanically harvested. One of the lowest average yields is displayed by the tea giant China, only 800kgs per ha, because huge tea gardens belong to tribal smallholders in remote rural zones. Argentina and Australia, from the start introduced machine harvesting, the same way as applied for all their other agricultural crops.

Behind these statistical data one needs to delve into a highly complex set of considerations, bearing in mind the millenary historical background of tea growing, the necessity to provide employment and revenue for the rural communities, the continuous progress of botanical improvements and mechanical engineering. Furthermore, tea producers must also deal with the need to satisfy the growing demand for good teas, whilst facing unfavourable climate and weather patterns and the continued urbanisation attracting more rural populations. Whilst taking all these elements into account one also needs to look closely at the many ways in which the various tea-producing country have developed their tea economy. From Japan to China, India to Sri Lanka, and Kenya to Vietnam, all with the same target to produce more quality teas, the outlook will vary according to the country’s social, economic and territorial conditions.

Nevertheless, in this fast-moving world, traditional manual tea picking is under scrutiny as replacing the nimble fingers with new tools results in speed with less costs. The tools range from individual hand-shears to huge ride-on harvesters, with an enormous choice in size, capability and price, according to Nigel Melican, founder and CEO of Tea Craft, who is considered worldwide as an expert in this field. He also indicated that in his opinion, about 50 percent of the world’s teas are currently mechanically harvested. Japanese Tea Machinery maker, Kawasaki Kiko, supports that estimate. Calculating further, Melican also suggested that probably 60 to 65 percent of the global CTC teas today are mechanically harvested.

The Human Variable

It is important to look at the set of variable parameters to better understand the complexity. The human variable with its cost and availability constraints comes first: Given the fact that over half of the world’s teas are grown and harvested by smallholders, manual labour is used by over 15 million small farmers and provides part if not most of their revenue. The latest FAO report about the global tea economy underlines that tea is amongst the most appreciated poverty-relief crops. Picking skills are important for quality leaf, and in many countries, it is women who harvest, whilst the men prune and do the maintenance work in the gardens. Tea harvesting is highly labour intensive, and to some extent, seasonal. The primary issues are wages that continue to rise, appropriate skill and sufficient availability in the flush season. In India, the cost of labour is squeezing profit and makes up 50 percent of production costs despite the modest USD $1.84 daily per worker. This reduces investment into quality improvements, which are crucial to handling competition from Kenya and China. Therefore, the Tea Board of India has favourably backed several initiatives towards mechanization. Pioneering work in South India has demonstrated that two workers operating a mechanical harvester for a day will harvest the same amount of leaf as 15 hand-plucking workers.

L Tiampati, the CEO of the Kenya Tea Development Agency, whose smallholders harvest 56 percent of the national output, confirms that manual leaf plucking is very labour intensive. He said, “To mitigate the effects of wage increases, the industrial tea estates have resorted to automation, both in the field and in the factory. KTDA is equally affected by these increases especially for those farmers who employ labour for their plucking. Some farmers do their own plucking, especially where the land sizes are small.” He said that for now, hand-plucking gives a better-quality product than mechanical plucking. “We are, however, in constant touch with mechanical harvesting machine suppliers and follow the improvements they are making to ensure quality of the leaf. For the time being, our farmers continue with a 100 percent hand plucking of their leaves.”

In China, tea-harvesting machines have been introduced over the past 10 years for most of the vast and newly planted areas. Whilst in the older and more traditional tea gardens, hand-plucking is maintained for the premium spring teas, the later harvests are also often carried out with mechanical equipment.

Other Notable Variables

Territorial variables range from steep slopes and hilly lands to flat surface, from small patches to vast acreage. Hand shears can tackle steep slopes, while two-man harvesters will be used on more gentle slopes. The fastest and most comfortable harvesting machines are the ride-ons, which range from huge engines for the large flat areas, to highly sophisticated small ride-ons that can tackle slopes up to 11 degrees and even 15 degrees Celsius. These are currently manufactured in Japan and in Australia. The choice is huge and caters to a wide set of requirements. Technology is improving and prices remain attractive.

The tea garden set up and botanical variables range from naturally grown bushes to methodically in-line planted gardens, from bushes that have always been hand-plucked and pruned to new varieties growing straight upright with very apical bud sets, easy to be cleanly seized by the machines. While visiting tea estates in Rwanda, Koji Sano, senior export manager of Ochiai, the oldest Japanese tea-cutting equipment supplier stated that the usual patchy growing will not allow harvesting devices to be used efficiently. “If you plan to introduce mechanical harvesting you need to plan several years at least,” he said.

Noting tea bushes’ vegetation period, it needs at least one production cycle for them to adapt to mechanical harvesting — that is, to flush where they have been machine plucked, either on the top for a flat plucking table, or all around in a bowl shape. Will Battle, CEO of Fine Tea Merchants and author of the World Tea Encyclopaedia said that one of the reasons for the cultivar Yabukita’s success in Japan is the ideal way new growth presents itself for mechanical harvesting, with the straight and richly flushing shoots. In all the tea research centres around the world, adjusting the growth of the new shoots for mechanical harvesting is amongst the important targets. Since tea quality is highly dependent on delivering unbruised and fully intact leaf to the factory doorstep, the way the shoots grow is of paramount importance in order to avoid any bruising and shredding by the mechanical harvesting devices.

Looking Forward

Switching from man to machines is a major decision, which will heavily impact company investment and marketing strategy. Such a fundamental change also needs a lot of forward planning, because its implementation requires time: a new plant will not yield leaves before three years – at least – the same applies to replanting in older gardens.

Most tea market experts estimate that the share of mainstream teas for the mass market amounts to over 90 percent of the global volume, including the extracts for RTD products. For them, mechanisation is expected to become inevitable in the short and medium term, in order to operate with competitive production costs. Hand-picking is expected to remain the standard for the specialty, premium and origin leaf tea segment. All these developments target good quality and more volume. However, they also require a lot of re thinking and a whole set of new skills.

Barbara Dufrêne is the former Secretary General of the European Tea Committee and editor of La Nouvelle du Thé. She may be reached at: b-dufrêne

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