Fair Trade & Sustainability in Organic Tea Farming
What does it take to maintain an Organic Farming?
Organic farming is a key concept in the discourse of sustainability. Although there are several contextual debates on implementation, it has an intuitive appeal. Given the circumstances of today's time, organic farming seems like something that will save the day. One has to keep in mind that the shift from inorganic to organic is anything but easy. It takes time to nurture the soil and plants with organic implements that are milder than their chemical counterparts. Moreover, the chemicals also abuse the soil and the surroundings in ways unimaginable and it takes time to get the soil back to a natural condition without hard chemical treatments.
Growing organically surely ensures that it will not damage the flora and fauna of the region, the workers, and the general environment. Corroborating to the fair trade mandates, growing organic is difficult but the right path to go ahead.
We interacted with Mr. Pankaj Choubey, manager of Okayti since 2007 on the 'Issues, Challenges & Advantages' of organic tea farming. Following is an excerpt of the conversation.
Q - Was Okayti always an organic garden?
M - No, like any other tea estates developing in the region, Okayti too took the usual recourse to inorganic farming. But the management took the brave decision in 2009 to go fully organic and it took the garden three long years to make the complete shift. It was so far the best decision taken by the management.
Q - What are the main non-organic components that you use in the tea gardens of Darjeeling?
M - Every sort of chemical that all uses usually in tea gardens including pesticides, manure, and other implements. The production increases but the chemical deteriorate the soil quality. Fertilizers contribute to topsoil erosion which further causes depletion of important nutrients in the soil. Over time the production decreases and the amount of fertilizer has to be increased to increase the overall production which further hampers the soil quality. Inorganic farming is a vicious circle with an increasing amount of chemical implements every year.
Moreover, the chemicals do more harm than help, they contaminate underground water which impacts the flora and fauna. Sometimes, they kill the predators and harmful pests flourish. Pests also get immune to pesticides and harder chemical has to be used. And indirectly, the chemicals also make their way to the human body.
Q - How long does it take to shift from non-organic to organic for a garden of Okayti's size?
M - As per rule, the conversion time is 3 years. It is a slow process and we have to give enough time to the soil and the tea plant to adjust to the new organic implements.
Q - What replaces the chemicals in organic farming?
M - Natural resources such as organic manure and natural herbal extracts replace the chemicals. They are naturally obtained and have no harmful effect on the soil, the environment, and the people working in the garden. For pest control, we sometimes resort to the natural food web networks by facilitating the growth of beneficial predators who feeds on the harmful pests. We also use yellow tapes to capture the harmful pest. There are a plethora of natural herbs easily available on the premises which work very well as pesticides without doing any damage to the flora and fauna of the region. Herbs like common nettle, mugwort, belladonna, and neem work very well as natural insecticides.
Q - Any changes in the flavour profile of the tea we can notice while shifting from non-organic to organic?
M - The naturally inherent quality of tea enhances when only organic implements are used. General tea drinkers might not be able to identify the chemical tinge of the non-organic tea but experienced tea tasters can surely find the difference. The shelf life of organically produced tea is higher and the human body can immensely benefit from a cup of organic tea, the nutrients come in natural form without any tint of harmful chemicals.
Q - What are the major challenges that the management face to maintain an organic garden?
M - The major challenge of organic tea farming is price realization. The cost of production is very high as it involves a lot of manual labour. We locally source the organic manures but still, it requires effort, time, and labour to make it usable and effective. Overall, it requires very precise and detailed observation of the entire tea estate with meticulously planned activities such as weed control, manuring, and soil rehabilitation. Managing an organic farm in itself is a great challenge and sustaining it has to be cost-effective.
Q - What does being organic mean in terms of sustainability, climate change, and fair trade?
M - If we avoid harmful chemicals, mother Earth will be happy, isn't it? In organic farming we do not abuse the natural resources, everything we use is only natural resources and in the long run, it definitely benefits both humans and nature.