• Mechanical Tea Harvesting

    Mechanical harvesting gets a bad rap. This is because poorly trained operators using poorly maintained equipment damage bushes, lowering yield and leaf quality. Simple routines such as level trimming in one direction, in a single long sweep over only half the plucking plain produces excellent leaf. Innovations like creating a seasonal calendar to regulate plucking rounds and paying workers for the area they shear instead of by the kilo keep yields high. Smallholders sharing equipment to save time can then use the many hours of labor saved for field maintenance and to complete agricultural chores like pruning, mulching, and weed abatement to deliver leaf of exceptional quality to factories.

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    Harkirat “Harki” Sidhu discusses the quality advantage to mechanical harvesting

    Mechanical tea harvester
    Harki Sidhu instructs women equipment operators in Bhumipradha, Indonesia. Photo courtesy Harkirat Sidhu.

    How to Stay on Top of Plucking Rounds

    Harkirat (Harki) Sidhu, 72, Rainforest Alliance India’s Consulting Program Coordinator for Sustainable Landscapes & Livelihoods and owner of Technologies Outsourcing is an expert in mechanical tea harvesters. He makes a compelling argument for improving tea quality using labor hours gained on farms that invest in these time-saving machines.

    Machine Harvested Tea Leaves

    Dan Bolton: Let me begin by just asking why we need harvesters?

    Harkirat Sidhu: In most geographies where we are harvesting tea, we are running out of workers who will work on farms. As a result, what happens is fewer plucking rounds that lead to tea overgrowth, and with overgrowth, you’re not going to make quality tea. So, we need to make sure that we stay on top of the plucking rounds.

    The fear that people have is that if you bring in mechanical harvesting, you’re replacing labor. But that’s not the idea. The idea is to plug the gap. The labor shortage in some places will be 40%. Another place there’ll be 25% fewer workers than required, but whatever the gap is, mechanical harvesting will plug that gap. That’s the whole idea of mechanical harvesting. Without that, we cannot manage today. The more you look at Sri Lanka, at Indonesia, India, China everywhere, everywhere we got the issue of a shortage of skilled labor coming up.

    “Mechanical harvesting is required today because we cannot complete plucking rounds frequently enough by hand. We need mechanical harvesting in addition to hand plucking, not to replace hand plucking.”

    – Harki Sidhu

    Dan: How does harvesting by machine impact the tea bushes and processing?

    Harki: Mechanical harvesters are not the same as hand plucking. So, we need to reorient our processing techniques and re-evaluate the actual processing of tea. Let’s talk for a moment about that. See, the difference between a harvester and hand plucking is that when hand plucking the plucker can selectively leave fresh leaf and other [maintenance] leaves.

    Whenever a harvester is required, we go non-selective at a particular height. The idea is to maintain that height because you will have problems if you go up and down. That’s why we need to make sure that we change the whole way we look at harvesting.

    Because it’s non-selective, we need to ensure that we pluck at the predetermined level and that there is no maintenance foliage coming into the harvest. So, for that, we need to set the table straight. If we don’t adjust these techniques, we will lose crop. You see many videos of people using harvesters, and they keep sweeping over the bush — every time you do that, you’re double cutting. And also it’s very difficult to maintain a level plucking plain. So we don’t recommend that.

    Dan: Could you explain the economics of mechanical harvesters?

    Harki: You don’t need a discussion on it; it is so simple. There are three basic types of harvesting. One is hand plucking which we have been doing for ages. Then shears were introduced, they are like scissors. We call them semi-mechanical harvesters. The third is, of course, the mechanical harvesters which are bigger machines. Some are operated by a single man, and some require two or more operators.

    Now, if you look at the economics, the kilograms plucked per man-day by hand might give you 30 kilograms. Shear harvesting might give you 38 or 39 kilograms, but the mechanical harvester will give you 150-200 kilograms per man-day, depending on the field. So that’s the difference straight away.

    There is a 20% to 23% saving in man-days if you are shear harvesting; there is a 74% to 75% saving in man-days when doing mechanical harvesting.

    What is happening today is that many governments and many organizations realize the need, but a basic subsidy is required for the mechanical harvesters because they are much more expensive.

    • Editor’s Note: A small Kawasaki electric hand harvester sells for around $100, a more capable electric model costs $250-$350; a one-man, gas-powered version sells for $400-$600. A two-man harvester sells for $950-$1,200. A Williames Tea track mounted Selective Tea Plucker sells for $30,000 to $35,000 and the Magic Carpet model sells for $80,000 to $90,000.

    Now, the question comes, can a smallholder afford a mechanical harvester, which costs a lot of money, even if he’s getting a subsidy? The answer is yes.

    What we do is we get two of them to purchase a harvester. Now the requirement for the owner of the harvester might be only a day, and he can cover his area. So, he can then charge the rest of the farmers to do the harvesting for them, and charge them per area, whatever area they’ve got; so, the other farmers don’t need to employ workers, their cost comes down. And the one who’s bought the harvester makes money and recovers his cost. In plantations, the return on investment is seven to eight months, with smallholders it’s a little more.

    That’s why we encourage people to go in for mechanical harvesting. We consider the life of a harvester to be two years. So after two years, they cannibalize a few harvesters to make a new one and buy a new one.

    Smallholders always have an issue with money. As soon as you tell him it costs so much, he says, “Oh my God.” So, then they go in for cheap harvesters, which are half the price, but create double the damage. Your quality goes down, your crop yields go down, the life of the harvester is shorter, so you’re soon buying a new one. So, we encourage them to follow certain principles on maintenance and to buy good equipment, pay for it, and it’ll pay for itself.

    Dan: Quality has often been questioned when the use of mechanical harvesters is involved. Talk to us about why quality does not suffer when one uses a mechanical harvesting strategy.

    Harki: The quality improves. I’ll tell you why. One is you are getting good leaf and you can get a very fine leaf. You decide on the target of your leaf. Most of the time, in hand plucking, by default, the leaf is becoming longer because you can’t harvest on time. So everything is based on the target shoot. You know I might say that in the second flush in Assam, you can do it in ten days, or nine days in October — every place is different. We tell them, you take your target shoot and record the time and date. As it reaches the target again record that time and date and when it reaches again, harvest and keep recording the interval. This becomes your calendar for next year. Once you’ve done it for a year, you got an obvious calendar that lets you plan the plucking schedule. I’m going to be nine days here, ten days here, 12 days at this time, and 13 days round of the season. Right? So it’s so much easier.

    When calculating these plucking intervals, you include in this gap all other agricultural practices that you should be doing during that period. Otherwise, everyone is on harvesting. No other job is being done.

    The harvester buys you all that labor time (75%) so that you can invest all that labor from the savings.

     If you do mechanical harvesting, your quality will suffer by just putting a harvester in place to remove the leaf, which is on top of a bush.

    You must alter many things, as I talked about, unidirectional harvesting, making sure that you’re not taking any maintenance foliage in your harvest, keeping the level not basing pay on kilograms per harvest worker.

    The biggest problem is that growers, once they put the machines in, continue paying that man per kilogram. So, he takes it a little deep, and then the leaf doesn’t come back for another three weeks because he’s done a light skiff, it’s chaos. In three months, the man’s machine goes down broken because he wasn’t taught maintenance. So, adjustment of blades, oiling of blades, If you don’t do that, they overheat and they damage your bush and the stock left behind.

    If you overcome these, which just requires training to understand what these machines can do, you alter your operations based on these machines. It will give you a fantastic quality.

    • Harki has contributed to his Tea Chai blog about tea technology since 2005.
    Single sweep in one direction harvest pattern at Namchic Tea Estate in Arunachal Pradesh. Photo courtesy Harkirat Sidhu.

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  • Q|A Madhuri Nanda

    The Rainforest Alliance’s Director for South Asia, Dr. Madhuri Nanda explains that while sustainable farming ensures that agricultural practices do not negatively impact and degrade the environmental, social, and economic aspects of the surrounding ecosystem, the focus shifts in regenerative agriculture towards making the system better by adopting an ecosystem approach to enhance biodiversity and improving soil health through increased microbial activities that build resilient systems capable of withstanding adverse climatic scenarios.

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    Rainforest Alliance’s Director for South Asia, Dr. Madhuri Nanda

    Madhuri Nanda
    Madhuri Nanda, Director South Asia with the Rainforest Alliance

    Regenerative Agriculture: A Holistic Approach

    Madhuri Nanda, Ph.D., lives in New Delhi where she has served since January as Director South Asia with the Rainforest Alliance. A researcher with a doctorate in environmental science, she has diverse expertise in sustainable agriculture that includes resource management, nutrient management, vulnerability assessments, and climate change mitigation. She is former head of strategic development for KBS Certification Services and a graduate of Delhi University.

    Dan Bolton: Is there an accepted definition of regenerative agriculture?

    Madhuri Nanda: The term regenerative agriculture may be somehow new, as it was coined in 1980s by the Rodale Institute, then disappeared and surfaced again from 2015. However, we need to keep in mind that the concept behind is not recent. It draws from the principles of agroecology and holistic ecosystem management, both at the farm and landscape level. We, at Rainforest Alliance, believe this is part of a broader umbrella of climate-smart agriculture. Hence, our standard includes many regenerative agriculture principles and practices, in addition to other key dimensions of sustainability for instance, traceability, living conditions, child labor, forced labor, etc. Taking an agroecology and integrated system management approach, regenerative agriculture aims to increase biodiversity, enhance ecosystem services, and increase agroecosystem resilience thus leading to resilient livelihoods.

    Dan: How do best practices in regenerative agriculture differ from sustainable farming?

    Madhuri: Sustainable farming ensures that the agricultural practices do not negatively impact and degrade the environmental, social, and economic aspects of the surrounding ecosystem. This is a journey to move from sustainable agriculture to regenerative agriculture, which is more of a natural progression where the focus shifts towards making the system better by adopting an ecosystem approach to enhance biodiversity, improve soil health through increased microbial activities in the soil, thereby building resilient systems that can withstand the adverse climatic scenarios. Hence, regenerative agriculture is a holistic approach accounting for all ecosystem services. At Rainforest Alliance, over more than 34 years, our sustainability standard has incorporated many of the principles of regenerative agriculture, such as soil health management (including composting and mulching), integrated pest management, biodiversity conservation, agroforestry, and a focus on climate-smart practices.

    Dan: Will you discuss the Rainforest Alliance’s view of intensive farming and mono cropping common in tea?

    Madhuri: Some tea producers have already innovated over the years and started intercropping with spices to diversify their produce from the estates. Hence, intensive farming is moving towards diverse intercropping in some cases, also to support greater revenues, in addition to tea tourism. The need for shade trees due to extreme climate conditions is bringing a shift towards agroforestry, too. Thus, we find that farmers are moving away from intensive farming as they already are aware of the deteriorating soil health of their farms and are willing to explore alternative solutions. Adopting our certification program brings these regenerative agriculture practices for building resilient farming systems in today’s world of changing climate.

    Dan: What are the most pressing challenges facing the tea industry?

    Madhuri: The tea industry in India and globally is grappling with significant issues that challenge its survival. Changing climate with untimely and unprecedented flooding and droughts coupled with increased pest infestations have led to significant crop loss. To add to this, supply chain disruptions due to pandemic, absenteeism, shortage of labor, increase the cost of production and unfavorable market conditions have contributed to loss of business for many key players. Further, the plight of tea smallholders that now contribute more than 50% of tea production in India is beyond comprehension given the limited resources at their disposal. We find those players who already had sustainability ingrained in their business practices, for instance fair wages, better life quality of workers, sound agricultural practices in their estates are resilient and better able to sustain themselves.

    Dan Bolton


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  • Tea Biz Podcast | Episode 27

    Tea Biz Podcast Logo

    Listen on your favorite player

    Hear the Headlines

    | New Criteria Proposed for Differentiating Specialty Tea
    | Walmart Tea is now 100% Certified by Rainforest Alliance
    | Kenya Sets KTDA Tea Auction Price Minimums

    Seven-minute Tea News Recap
    Tea Price Report
    India Tea Price Watch | July 17

    Assam’s new state government continues to woo the tea industry with new schemes, the latest is that workers on tea gardens will be included in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which will benefit them in winter when the gardens are not producing tea.  Read more…


    Tea Biz this week travels to London for a chat with David Veal, Executive Director of the European Speciality Tea Association. Veal describes the association’s new perspective and new definition of what makes specialty tea special.

    … and then to northern India where Aravinda Anantharaman visits a tea café with heart.

    David Veal, executive director, European Speciality Tea Association

    Differentiating Specialty Tea

    By Dan Bolton

    A rigid definition of what makes tea special has eluded the industry. Professionals understand excellence in specific styles. After 45 years of competitions there is consensus on the qualities that make an outstanding Dong Ding oolong as judged by the Lugu Tea Farmers’ Association in Taiwan. In France, the AVPA has demonstrated skill in determining the gastronomic qualities in tea that please the local palate. The International Specialty Tea Association posts a set of universal standards such as pluck and leaf quality. Consumers mainly differentiate by price.

    The European Speciality Tea Association recently announced a definition that is more aspirational than dogmatic. ESTA Executive Director David Veal explains how the association adopted this approach and why it will prove helpful. 

    Read more…

    David Veal on what makes specialty tea special.
    Staff at the La Gravitea café L to R, in the front, Suraj Thakur, Chandra Prabha, Nandita. In the middle, Monika Mahato, Amit Kumar Singh, Amit Lahari. Back row, Shakuntala Hansda, Nikit Sharma and Navin Kumar

    For the Love of Tea

    By Aravinda Anantharaman

    La Gravitea café is a remarkable tea café with hundreds of selections of fine teas inspired by the travels of founder Avinash Dugar but aside from specialty teas, what make La Gravitea special is that the young staff are hard-working graduates of the local school for the hearing-impaired. Learn more…

    Aravinda Anantharaman takes a virtual tour of the La Gravitea cafe

    A New Definition of Specialty Tea

    By Dan Bolton

    The European Speciality Tea Association this week presented a comprehensive new definition of specialty tea. The 450-word definition seeks to “encapsulate the spirit of speciality tea” writes ESTA president Nigel Melican. The essence is that those involved in producing specialty tea “aspire to attain excellence from bush to cup” says Melican. Four aspects cited in the definition seek to differentiate speciality tea from commodity.

    These include transparency that makes know the supplier, location, production dates, and processing method; Physical characteristics such as size, shape, and appearance of the wet and dry leaf; sensory properties including color, clarity, flavor, aroma and mouthfeel; and the mitigation of environmental impacts including support for biodegradable packaging.

    The definition describes specialty teas as “hand-made.”

    The effort involved stakeholders at every level, but the messaging is directed to consumers.

    “We believe that the consumer needs to be inspired from the moment they enjoy the aroma, liquor, and taste of the tea and celebrate in the plant’s personality, the origin of the tea, the care that has been taken in the processing and brewing of it; this being a speciality moment,” reads the association announcement.

    See the definition and supporting documents at www.specialityteaeurope.com

    Biz Insight – Forty years ago consumers in the US and Europe tossed aside 25-cent cups of stale, anonymous, percolated, and warmed-over drip brew in favor of carefully selected, roasted, and barista-prepared single-origin coffee and specialty blends.  The additional billions spent on $4 espresso drinks and premium beans revitalized the industry.

    Will the same be true for specialty tea? David Veal, executive director of the European Speciality Tea Association, discusses the reasoning behind the new definition in this interview.

    David Veal on what makes specialty tea special.
    Walmart Tea now 100% Rainforest Alliance Certified Sustainable

    Walmart Tea is Certified by Rainforest Alliance

    By Dan Bolton

    Walmart announced this week that all its Great Value Brand black and green teas will be 100% certified sustainable by the Rainforest Alliance.

    “This is good news not just for Walmart, but also for farmers, and the future of tea,” writes Silvia Azrai [AZ RAY] Kawas, Walmart vp of Private Brands Food. She explained that Rainforest Alliance helps ensure that three pillars of sustainability are met: social, environmental and economic.

    “Our Great Value Brand black and green teas will remain affordable, high-quality drinks, with an added bonus: Each box you buy makes a measurable impact on the life of a smallholder farmer,” according to the company.

    Biz Insight – In 2007 when Unilever, the world’s largest tea supplier, committed to Rainforest Certification at Kericho, Kenya it signaled to commodity suppliers that to remain competitive they needed to invest in environmentally-friendly cultivation at origin. A consumer-driven embrace of sustainable processing, packaging, and waste reduction soon unfolded, making the entire supply chain more efficient. In 2016 Walmart committed to sustainably source 20 commodities by 2025 including tea. Now Walmart, the world’s largest tea retailer, has extended that commitment to the terminus of the supply chain.

    Kenya Sets Tea Auction Price Minimums

    The Kenyan government withdrew tea valued at 1 billion Kenyan shillings (about $9 million in US dollars) at the Mombasa Auction because prices failed to meet a controversial $2.43 per kilo minimum reserve price. 

    “We made a drastic but necessary decision with regard to sale of teas at the Mombasa tea auction,” Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya told the local press.

    He said the government has plenty of storage capacity and will continue withdrawing tea if prices do not meet the minimum rate.

    The decision angered traders who simply purchased tea on offer from other African countries leaving 8 million kilos of Kenyan tea idled in local warehouses. A spokesman for the East African Tea Traders Association said that when sellers set prices for themselves, instead of relying on free market fluctuations, there is “no guarantee that buyers will follow that lead.” Production far outstrips demand and as such, prices have taken a hit. This is not an auction problem,” said EATTA’s managing director Edward Mudibo.

    Secretary Munya said the government is determined raise the price at auction. “We believe we can sustain the situation as we have enough reserves,” he told Citizen TV.

    Biz Insight – It is unclear in this face-off whether tea traders or the Kenyan government will be the first to blink. Nine tea producing countries sell their tea at the Mombasa auction and independent producers are free to ignore the Kenya Tea Development Agency reserve price, but none can rival output of 620,000 smallholders supplying KTDA’s 54 factories.

    Traders must also weigh the fact that tea exports are down from India, a bidding rival. The Sri Lanka auction at Colombo has sufficient volume of tea but prices, at an average $3.97 per kilo for low-grown tea, are significantly higher than the recent 5- and 10-year lows seen in Mombasa. Tea prices at the Mombasa auction have averaged $1.80 per kilo so far this year, dipping to $1.65 per kilo, significantly below the estimated $2 per kilo cost of production.

    – Dan Bolton

    Upcoming Events

    August 2021
    Beijing International Tea Expo, Beijing China
    August 27-30, 2021 | Beijing Exposition Center

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