Tea the Hero Crop

Large government-supported tea estates are failing. Scarcity of labor, the cost of large-scale production and reliance on chemicals and pesticides unwanted by consumers make plantations unsustainable. A legacy of colonial days, the vertically integrated multi-nationals that still dominate the tea value chain are witnessing a dramatic change as smallholders become the main producers of tea in Kenya, Malawi, Sri Lanka and India.

It is now apparent that cheap tea short-changes everyone.

Tea for centuries was tended by families working small plots. Mountain gardens covered a couple of acres and rarely exceed 20 acres (10 hectares). Tea plants require minimal investment, provide year-round work and produce for 30 or more years. The fact that tea trees are resilient and grow on land less desirable for food crops – and that tea brings a good price at the market – make it the ideal cash crop for smallholders.

Chinese tea culture was always the province of smallholders. The 80 million farmers there are prospering on 4.5 million acres (1.86 million ha) of land. Growers initially made their own tea but in time artisans processed the leaves harvested within four hours distance.

China offers a model that for millions will make tea a “Hero Crop” built on sustainable landscapes (farmscapes); new market mechanisms and consumer engagement. These three areas of focus are the work of Tea 2030, a broad-based coalition of trade associations, academics, tea businesses and NGOs that was launched by the Forum for the Future in 2013.

Tea Journey and its dedicated readers play an important role in this initiative by building awareness of sustainable tea with those who vote with their pocketbook.

That is why the Harvest Review issue is so important. Tea Journey’s in-country team of writers brings attention to those who grow and process artisan teas. Coverage begins with a visit to the humble mountain home of Purnima Rai, a widowed, elderly Nepalese grower who is passionate about tea. Daily she awakens to select the best leaves from her certified organic garden. She then carries her basket two hours to sell the fresh leaves to the processing factory in Sunderpani, Ilam, Nepal’s most famous growing region. A remarkable woman, every tea consumer should meet her and realize that she is but one of millions of smallholders working on their behalf to make quality tea.


Click here to learn more about the role you can play in making Tea 2030 a success.

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