Only a few leading gardens in Darjeeling and Assam have taken up organic tea, which is grown without the use of any manmade chemicals and pesticides. Even the Indian Tea Association, the largest association of north Indian tea producers, does not have much information about organic tea farming in the country.
According to some tea planters, they are averse to make the switch to organic tea since production falls drastically during the five or six years required for making the transition.
According to them, a tea plantation that decides to make the switch will have to stop using chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides for at least five years to clear all traces of such chemicals from the soil and the tea bushes. No one has the financial muscle to last five years on a reduced crop.
According to a Darjeeling-based planter, some tea gardens in his district and in Assam that were lying closed for some time have reopened with new farming practices. Since all farm practices were suspended during the closure, the tea bushes have been freed from contamination naturally. The planters can now resume looking after the bushes with organic manure and pesticides.
However, Mr PN Banerjee, a veteran tea planter who owns the world-famous Makaibari Tea & Trading Co, scoffs at such excuses for not taking up organic farming. This is not true at all, said Mr Banerjee. According to him, leaf production may decline for the first few years as the use of chemical fertilisers and plant protection agents are abandoned. But a plantation can realise enough leaf to sustain itself. After three years, once a thick bed of mulch has been built over the topsoil, the tea bushes automatically get their nutrition from the soil and leaf realisation increases. In fact, he said, organic tea fetches much higher prices which means better returns for the plantation. Mr Banerjee claimed that no fertiliser, organic or inorganic, is required if the mulching process is adopted. The mulch is built up by letting leaves and grass accumulate on the plantation bed. To hasten the process, the plantation can use its excess land to grow Guatemala grass, which can be used to build the mulch. According to him, one acre of land thus used can yield enough mulch for 10 acres of plantation.
Apart from transforming the topsoil and providing nutrition for the bushes, the mulch layer also checks soil erosion. During the dry season, the mulch layer helps retain moisture for a long time.
At Makaibari, whose tea often fetches record prices at auctions, Mr Banerjee uses titapati, lemon grass and neem branches to protect the bushes. So, there is no need to spray neem oil.
He said the absence of inorganic chemicals attracts green flies, which nest in the tea bushes. Leaves and buds infested with green fly are collected by expert women pluckers and turned into the finest and costliest muscatel teas. Such tea is available in very little quantities and only during May 15 to June 15.
In fact, the green fly infestation can be detected only by extensive and close observation of the bushes. One such consignment of tea was sold for Rs 18,000 a kg at an auction here in 2003. While Mr Banerjee uses mulching and other methods to counter a drop in leaf realisation, Mr P Das Biswas of Inhana Biotech has used energy management principles to develop a process that prevents crop loss.