Mechanical Harvesting

Given the cost and shortage of labor and the growing demand for tea, mechanization is here to stay. Virtually all crops are being mechanically harvested now. There’s no other way that you can make commodity tea commercially viable, says Teacraft founder Nigel Melican.

Nigel Melican is a career research scientist, founder of Teacraft consulting, and President of the European Speciality Tea Association. He has monitored advances in harvesting technology for more than 40 years from crude hand shears and reciprocating blades to the latest generation “selective” harvesters capable of discerning and plucking (not shearing) shoots that consist of two leaves and a bud. Virtually all crops are being mechanically harvested now, explains Melican. Fewer laborers require that mechanization plug the gap. Given the cost and shortage of labor and growth in demand, “There’s no other way that you can make commodity tea commercially viable,” he says.

  • Caption: Nigel Melican in his office in Cloonerra, Strokestown, Republic of Ireland
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Teacraft Founder Nigel Melican on mechanical harvesting of tea.

Globally a majority of large scale tea farms are mechanically harvested. Photo courtesy Kenya Tea Directorate.

Tea Mechanization Must be Well Managed

Nigel Melican founded the technology consultancy Teacraft Group 25 years ago to serve all sectors of the tea industry, supplying equipment and machinery world-wide and offering training, and specialist contract research and development. Teacraft, headquartered in the Republic of Ireland, specializes in the more traditional orthodox tea manufacture process and particularly in artisanal and hand-made tea making.

Dan Bolton: Nigel, why is mechanized tea harvesting here to stay?

Nigel Melican: I’ve looked at tea harvesting, mechanical harvesting for the last 40 years, I’ve been in tea primarily because I was parachuted into a mechanically harvested tea estate in Papua New Guinea in 1980. It was one of the very few in the world at that time. I knew nothing about tea at that time. I assumed all tea was mechanically harvested.

Having completed that assignment they said to stop in Sri Lanka on your return leg and see some real tea being harvested. I couldn’t really understand what they meant. In Sri Lanka I realized that tea was not a mechanically harvested crop like wheat, for instance.

So, I think now that mechanical harvesting is certainly here to stay. There’s no other way that that you can make tea commercially viable anymore. In virtually all agriculture crops are mechanically harvested: wheat, corn, cotton, even grapes are being mechanically harvested.

The machinery isn’t brought in to displace hand labor. It’s coming in because of labor shortages due to urban drift, in the main. Leaf collectors want their children to be doctors and teachers and accountants, they don’t want them to go into field labor. And rightly so, they aspire for better for their children.

There is a growing lack of labor and mechanization is coming in to plug that gap. Rural dwellers are fewer now as 55% of the world’s population live in cities. There was a tipping point in 2000 with an estimated four billion people now residing in urban areas. Today 95% of the world’s population lives on 10% of the land.

Tea mechanization recognizes all of those drivers.

Without mechanization, you just can’t scale production. So, the simple choice is mechanization or empty tea cups. That is, in a nutshell, why mechanical harvesting is here to stay.

– Nigel Melican

Another thing about mechanization is that annual global tea production is 6.3 million metric tons a year. That’s doubled in 20 years from when it was just three million metric tons. Without mechanization, you just can’t get that sort of scale of production, certainly not of commodity tea.

So, the simple choice is mechanization or empty teacups.

That is, in a nutshell, why mechanical harvesting is here to stay.

Dan: Japanese growers invented the first mechanical harvester in 1910 and today some rely entirely on robotics to operate harvesting equipment. In Africa, in contrast, the introduction of mechanical harvesters in 2006 led to union opposition and uprisings in 2010 as workers burned machines. A dozen years later tea workers continue to resist mechanization in Kenyan’s courts but labor lawsuits seeking to ban mechanization ultimately failed on appeal. Is this resistance a reflection of labor-management issues? Can’t workers see they will be paid more as machine operators for doing less physical labor?

Nigel: I’ve worked in Africa for many, many years, and coming from developed Western society it is sometimes difficult to understand the African way of thinking about life.

And I think going with that is resistance to change. If you read history, you can see it in the UK during the Industrial Revolution, the Luddites burning looms is exactly the same sort of attitudes that mechanization is destroying the traditional way of living. So, I think a lot of it has to do with that sort of culture and way of thinking way of life.

Dan: Does mechanized tea harvesting necessarily mean lower quality tea?

Nigel: With the machines that we have nowadays, it’s difficult to get a level of harvest that you can get from a skilled plucker. Having said that, the overall quality of tea being plucked is going down and has been going down for the last 40 years. The iconic 100% two leaves and a bud pluck is a dream that some planters still have at the back of their mind or sometimes in the front of their mind… and 100% two leaves and the bud plucking is possible, but it’s slow, it’s slow.

And when you were paying only $1 a day, it was achievable. Now pluckers are still poorly paid, but in Sri Lanka, your labor is $5 a day. So, you have to pluck faster, harder, which means a coarser leaf.

Hand plucking is no longer achieving 100% two leaves and the bud, it’s achieving at best about 80% two leaves and the bud and more typically 60%. So, most of the commodity tea is being plucked with about 60% of the day’s harvest as two leaves.

A mechanical reciprocating blade harvesting machine can do about the same as a moderately skilled plucker and reciprocating blade harvesting can be done better than it’s being done now, first by not pushing the machinery so hard and second, by not pushing the people carrying the machinery so hard. We can expect improvements in terms of quality where quality is required by encouraging workers to make a better job of it.

Mechanical harvesting, when properly managed, can achieve the lower level of quality the is expected of a plucker nowadays. Since the mass production of commodity tea bag tea is predicated on volume production, to keep their companies running producers have to be going for the cheapest tea possible, at the highest volume. Mechanical harvesting is a route to doing that.

When you are a volume producer you have to cut corners and one of the corners that is cut is quality. Virtually all the commodity tea goes to supermarkets that have a fixed price policy, they don’t like to see prices of their loss-leading commodity range going up. So black tea pricing is pretty inelastic. When you have steadily increased costs of production and very little ability to get an increased price, something has to give. To trim the margin, producers go for volume, and volume means less quality. So that’s what’s happening out there with mechanical harvesting at the moment.

Now, you should be asking ‘well, is it possible to achieve quality with a machine?’

Yes, it’s possible to do better.

Dan: Harkirat (Harki) Sidhu in a previous podcast acknowledges the limitations of reciprocal harvesters but makes the point that machines allow producers to more efficiently allocate labor. There is a 75% savings in person-days using mechanical harvesters, according to Sidhu. The additional hours are sufficient to increase rounds to prevent overgrowth and to better care for the plants while maintaining the equipment. Additional labor hours gained might also enable growers to produce more labor-intensive high-margin specialty teas.

Nigel: Yeah, yeah. He put his finger on it, it’s about improving management. If we think about how mechanization will improve things in the future that’s one of the things which must improve.

You’ll often find people complain that as soon as you bring in machines, the yield goes down. Yeah, of course, it does. Because they bring it in in a wrong way.

The machine does it totally different from the plucker. The plucker chooses the mature shoots and leaves and avoids the immature shoots. The machine goes zoom right across and takes everything. Then you have to wait 21 days for it all to grow up again. Intermittent use of machines to occasionally fill gaps in labor availability inevitably reduces yield. However, the plucking table will equilibrate if you keep on mechanically harvesting as the Japanese producers have found.

If I had an estate, I would be running it on that well-managed basis. But most people managing big estates recognize that conglomerates have simple ways of thinking about things. And if they were going for commodity volume tea, the plantation owners don’t want people messing with speciality tea.

And similarly, people who are committed to speciality tea are often somewhat elitist. I mean, and I say this as the president of the European Speciality Tea Association, that they have a purist view of what speciality tea is. Ultimately, there is a continuum between very poor commodity tea at the bottom and very expensive premium tea at the top.

I would not want to make all my money from one end or the other end. I would try to do both on my estate; to optimize conditions on my best land or highest land or the land which gave the sweetest flavor and manage the rest to yield more everyday tea.

In many parts of China at the spring flush, the families all come back to the farm. People who’ve gone off to work in the computer component factories and Christmas tree ornament factories — they bring them all back and they all harvest the first flush by hand as that is the one which really makes the money, the $1,000 a kilo to $5,000 a kilo tea.

Then the middle flush, which is the green tea that everyone drinks every day, is harvested by machine as is the final autumn flush; this is really rough stuff that’s harvested for black tea, which goes into instant tea, and they flog that to America.

So, they have covered all the bases very cleverly. And anyone who’s been to China will know how clever they are at looking at a problem and working out ways to solve it.

That’s the way that you can manage your tea on an estate, but as I say, most people don’t want to work that way. They want to be all one or the other.

Dan: Harvester manufacturers have been innovating for 100 years. Going forward, what improvements can we expect?

Nigel: The first innovation in mechanical harvesting in my lifetime is the Australian selective mechanical harvester, which is a machine that discriminates between the bud and the immature and the mature shoot, and only plucks the mature shoot and ignores the immature shoots. It simulates plucking, exerting the same pressure between the thumb and finger that a plucker will use.

That is a totally new way of looking at tea harvesting. And it can do it as well as a skilled plucker.

Dan: What’s your capital investment to put a machine like that in the field?

Nigel: Until it gets into real production, it will be expensive. But currently, I think they’re selling at around $15,000 for a one-and-a-half-meter wide machine.

Compared with the two-person harvester used in India or in Africa, it’s going to be about 10 or 15 times more expensive.

This machine can harvest at the quality which exceeds the average plucker. And it can do it almost five times as fast. And with about 1/6 of the labor cost. So even though it’s an expensive investment, it works for speciality tea. Now, I don’t think it’s gonna work as well for commodity tea. Right? A supermarket tea blend doesn’t justify that sort of level of plucking anyway.

The Selective Tea Harvester manufactured by Williames Tea in Victoria, Australia, sells for $14,950 (head only)
The rotating 1.5-meter head “plucks” shoots, omitting sustenance leaves and immature shoots.

Nigel: When I was a child, I remember wheat grew four feet high. And now it’s 18 inches high. Right? Because the plant breeders got in on the act. The combine manufacturers complained that the wheat was lodging in the cutter due to the length of the stalk. So the breeders developed wheat with short straw. Not only was it easier to harvest, but the short straw meant that more of the plant’s energy went into the ear rather than into the stalk, increasing yield by 25%. So, it was a win-win.

I think that the tea bush can be completely restructured. In the future, we’ll be seeing improvements to the plant shape, the plant architecture. This is a slow job with a perennial crop because the breeding cycle for one improvement takes about 20 years for tea plants, whereas with an annual crop there’s only one season. So it’s a much slower job. The architecture of a tea bush is a tall tree and we brought it down to a three-foot bush. So yes, there will be improvements in the machines, there will be improvements in the bush architecture. And there will be improvements in management.

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