Why tea planters don’t drink tea?

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Fatigue from a few hours of drive through the winding roads of Western Ghat vanished instantly as we stepped out of the car into the serene beauty of Wagamon. I was accompanying a business group that’s scouting for farm land and they were evaluating the feasibility of organic tea farming. We were at a mid size 100+ acre tea estate for meeting with the owner of the estate.

A nicely paved walk way through the tea plantation led us to the estate’s guest house. We stopped a couple of times on the walk way enjoying the cool breeze and the beautiful sight of the tea plantation that is spread across the rolling hills as far as the eyes can see. The sight of the guest house resembled more like an extended cabin of a five star resort.

The owner of the estate, a third or fourth generation tea planter in his late thirties, was standing in front of the guest house with a welcoming smile. We were seated at the drawing room and started chit chatting about the tea estate and their farming practices. In between someone walked into the room with a tray of cups. After the long journey we were all ready for a cup of estate’s special tea, but to our surprise the room was filled with the aroma of freshly brewed coffee.

“Intriguing that you would serve coffee rather than tea at the guest house of a tea estate!”, I couldn’t resist commenting while trying to hide my curiosity with a smile. The owner said candidly, we don’t drink tea here, we know what goes into it. There was silence in the room for a few seconds. We all knew about the use of pesticides in industrial farming, but his comment just pointed to the intensity of it.  I think all our faces must have reflected what was going through in our minds. He quickly cracked a couple of jokes trying to ease the situation, and said coffee is much safer.

In the next few minutes we delved more into the farming process and talked about different pesticides and herbicides that goes into the farm. He said it isn’t viable to farm organically anymore. The labour cost is too high for weed management. It is not possible to produce the current volume using organic methods. Someone asked, wouldn’t the cost of all these pesticides and fertilizers add up to the cost of organic farming? He thought for a moment and said, amount of pesticides used is constantly increasing year by year but switching back to organic method is not easy. Disappointment was evident in his voice.

I would think farmers like him must have grown up running and playing around these tea plants, that they now think are not safe anymore for their children to go near by! What is ironic is that the life of tea plants spans over more than a century and the plants that we see now probably are the same plants that were there a generation ago. It is perplexing to think what really changed in 30-50 years that forced our attitude to change from “caring and nurturing the plants” into “managing and controlling production”. Can we sum it up in one word as “greed”?

After spending a couple of hours at the guest house we said goodbye to the estate owner and walked back to our vehicle. The tea plantation now looked different in light of what we just heard. I felt enormous respect for the mother nature as she continued her beautiful smile while patiently accepting all the poison that we have been dumping on her face.

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A couple of months later, I had another tea planter from Wagamon visited my office. He was a retired professor in his mid seventies. He bought his 20+ acre estate a few decades ago while he was working as a college lecturer in Wagamon.

Although he didn’t sound like an organic farming evangelist :-), he definitely was an ethical farmer who was concerned about the current farming practices and its impact on nature.

I sat in front of him with full attention as if a five year old child would sit in front of his grandpa listening to his stories :-). After all, here is a successful farmer who passionately ran a farm for decades, fighting against the temptations and greed. He had very interesting observations on what lured organic farmers into chemical based industrial farming and why was it a trap. I said in my mind, we need more people like you, sir.

All of professor’s children are settled with their own businesses and were too busy to take care of the day to day running of the farm. So he was considering of selling the farm land. The professor was accompanied by one of his sons who was in his early forties and was running a technology related business with branches in a few cities.

While this discussion was in progress, our office attendant came and asked whether our guests prefer tea or coffee. The professor thanked and said he would just like water. I asked, how about green tea? His son, who was silent so far, politely said, we don’t drink tea or coffee. Why is that, I asked. He said, it is hard to drink tea or coffee once you know what is happening in the current tea farming industry. Recalling my earlier tea planter interaction, I asked, isn’t coffee generally safe? The professor looked at me for a second in silence, and said, coffee is even worse. 😦

We continued our discussion for an hour. Before leaving the professor said, well, the picture probably is not as disappointing as it sounds. In the recent times there has been tremendous awareness on the need for change. He said he knew of a non-profit organization that leases and runs tea estates using organic farming practices. I heard that they claim organic farming can actually be more profitable than the current farming practices and their products have good demand in the market. Meeting them is on my agenda for the next Wagamon trip. 🙂

I accompanied the professor and his son to our main door. As I was bidding goodbye to them, my coffee cup was still sitting on the conference room table, cold and untouched.

Farms in winter – Rocky Mountain region of the US

This blog had been silent for a while. 🙂 I was in business travel lately through US, Canada and Mexico and got back home last week.

One of the things I enjoy the most during travel is scouting around for farms and farmers in the area. Here are a few pictures of farm lands I found during this trip. Since it’s winter in the US, farmlands are all frozen and there are no crops. Most of these pictures are from the states of Idaho and Utah.

In Boise, Idaho, there wasn’t much snow left on the fields. Temperature was in the range of 5-10 degree Celsius. Many of the fields were already tilled and prepared for spring to start. Many fields had cows and horses.

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Cows in the farm field (temperature was around 5-10 degree centigrade)

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A small patch of snow on the field

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Sheep

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Horses

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Horse

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A nice of the landscape

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More horses

Following are some of the common irrigation systems used in large fields in this area. They are mostly based on sprinklers attached on a long pipeline that extends the full width of the field  (typically rectangular). This pipeline is attached on motorised wheels so that it moves through the full length of the field with the sprinklers turn on. In some cases one end of the pipeline is fixed or pivoted to the ground at the center of the field, covering a circular area of the farm. This makes the system less complex but requires additional irrigation outside of the circular area.

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Wheel line irrigation system

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Wheel line irrigation system

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A massive drop sprinkler irrigation system

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Taken during a drive through a higher altitude area (not farming land)