Two things I most love about my job - spending time with customers, and visiting the tea gardens back east. Every time I am driving around the hills where tea is grown, the beauty of the place makes me feel utterly blessed that I can do this for a living.
This time when I visited Darjeeling I stopped at several tea gardens. The highlight was visiting small tea factories that were owned by local entrepreneurs - a relatively new phenomenon in Darjeeling. They call themselves factories because the bulk of the leaf they process is grown for them by other local farmers. That is in contrast to the regular tea gardens where they have their own factories and tea bushes.
Niroula's Tea Factory is located around 40 minutes drive from Darjeeling town in the village of Poobong. The factory had its beginnings in around 1999 when a local NGO started encouraging local farmers battling wild boar depredations to switch to growing tea. The boars were making it impossible for farmers to grow their normal crop of corn and veggies.
According to Bhawesh Niroula, who manages the factory with the help of his family, the NGO eventually wound up the project, but his father Bikram Niroula, decided to not only continue growing tea but also to build his own tea processing factory in 2015. Until then the leaves from his tea bushes were being sent to another larger established tea garden.
The village where the Niroulas live and run the factory is almost entirely populated by their extended family. A lot of them grow tea for the factory. But the bulk of the leaves come from other small tea growers located in the villages of Lamahatta, Bada Poobong, Badamtam and Pulundung - some nearby and some quite a bit away.
Bhawesh, who once worked for the IT company, Dell in Bangalore, returned home to help his father with the tea venture. His wife, Sonia, went to a graduate school in Delhi and has worked in the marketing field. They make a good team. Sadly, Bikram passed away in 2018.
A lot of technical help comes from the workers they have hired from the neighboring tea garden. Although they do not have an organic certification, they make sure that the tea growers do not use any kind of chemicals for conventional farming. Currently, they are manufacturing around eight thousand kilos annually. We selected a batch of tea and have been waiting for its arrival. We cannot wait for you to try it!
About 40 minutes hour drive away towards Mirik Valley from Poobong was Deorali Tea Factory, that looked more like a temporary shed in a forest clearing. Inside was the owner Niraj Pradhan, tortured by dreams of making great tea, gently directing his staff of three young men in the handling of the leaf. Pradhan had already worked for big estates. Excitement bubbled to surface as he showed me his creations inspired mainly by Chinese styles like Silver Needle, Jasmine Pearls, flowering teas and even puerh! He focused exclusively on specialty teas, depending on a 45 acre land nearby to grow his own tea.
We sampled many of this teas. Some of them looked and tasted wonderful. We would have liked to get some of his teas unfortunately Pradhan had not finished setting up formalities required for exporting teas. We hope that we can work with him in the future.
What is huge about these two seemingly small tea ventures in Darjeeling is that this is the first time locals are taking ownership of the tea industry. Otherwise, the large tea gardens of Darjeeling are almost entirely owned by Kolkata-based businesses who aren't seen by the locals as committed to the long-term future of the hills.
The other thing is as the problem of labor shortage in the tea gardens continues to grow deeper in Darjeeling, we feel that these big tea gardens will have to literally downsize. Currently there is as much as 50-60% shortage of labor in the Darjeeling tea industry. It is caused mainly by low pay and the locals' disinterest in doing manual work that attracts little prestige.
Small tea growers can be an answer to these challenges: workers can earn more and the pride of owing ones own tea bushes and factories cannot be underestimated. Also a small farm specializing in specialty tea won't have the pressure to produce commodity tea to pay thousands of workers.
In Puttabong tea estate, the last and an established garden that we visited, the challenges were visible. When we were there the post second flush production was underway. This particular crop isn't considered a premium grade. We saw workers were using handheld shears to pick the leaves - this was the first time we had seen "mechanization" in Darjeeling hills, where no matter the season the industry always took pride in each leaf being hand picked.
Manager Rajesh Pareekh, later told me that due to shortage of workers they had no option but to bring in the shears. The plucking rounds - where they have to get back to a bush to pluck new leaves within a seven to eight days - otherwise could not be met. According to him, they were using shears judiciously and only when the plucking rounds were heavy which happens mainly in the production of second flush and rains tea (tea produced during monsoons).
The first flush production that we selected from this garden - and which many of you have been enjoying - Pareekh assured me was all hand picked. Notably, Puttabong was one of the earliest tea gardens with a full fledged factory in Darjeeling. Set up in 1852 the garden currently has 436 acres under tea cultivation and is certified as Organic, Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance.
Pareekh, noted that the first part of second flush production this year was impacted adversely because early on in the season there was no rain. The lack of moisture did not allow the insect called thrips to grow in the bushes. Tea planters believe that these insects by sucking the moisture from the leaves, start the withering process in the leaves right in the fields (such leaves appear curled). This intervention by thrips is great for developing the desired flavors in a second flush tea.
Thankfully, the heavens opened up in July and the second half of the season saw a good quality emerge. You can taste that in our Singbulli second flush!
There is always so much to learn when you are in a tea garden. This year's trip has us excited about the space that the small tea farmers are carving for themselves in an industry normally controlled and dominated by big businesses. We are hoping to very much be part of it.