For long, our tea has come from vast estates. Far-flung and isolated, they are worlds unto themselves, a way of life, with hundreds of people working and living there with their families. This tea plantation model, however, seems to have become unviable and small tea growers, though not new to the scene, are beginning to claim a larger share of the market.
Estate management is mandated to provide housing, rations, primary school facilities and primary healthcare. Tea planters say 60% of their cost of production is labour cost. Moreover, labour is no longer available easily and climate change is adding to the stress. In such a scenario, small tea growers, who contributed 28% to our annual tea production in 2011, saw their share rising to 51% in 2021, according to a Confederation of Indian Small Tea Growers Association status paper this February. The report puts the number of small tea growers at around 240,000, cultivating 200,000 hectares and producing about 691 million kilograms of tea. Assam, which produces 52% of the country’s tea, leads the count—it also leads in experimentation.
The Tea Board of India defines a small tea grower as one who farms on less than 25 acres; the paper suggests the average holding size is 2.14 acres. Most are family-owned and family-run farms that harvest leaves and sell them to factories; some process their own leaves to experiment with tea-making.
Within this large and still somewhat messy segment, some extraordinary stories have begun to emerge. In Assam, Sailen Phukan of the Latumoni farm is working constantly on styles (his tea pellets are especially interesting), Rakhi Saikia of Pabhojan makes a rare yellow tea, Bijit Basumatary and Bhugeshwari Changmai are proponents of organic cultivation.
In Darjeeling, West Bengal, Rajah Banerjee, former owner of the famed Makaibari gardens, runs Rimpocha, an artisanal tea brand working exclusively with small tea growers. In the south, Knowledge Sharing and Caring, a group of about 12 small farmers, works on artisanal teas. The women-run Tea Studio in the Nilgiris, with a focus on sustainability, is a model for bought leaf factories, producing teas only on order.
The small tea grower movement, in fact, began in south India in the 1960s. But one man credited with popularising it, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, is Gangadhar Saikia from Assam. A headmaster at Golaghat district’s Melamora Village School, he decided to become a tea farmer once restrictions on small growers were lifted in 1978. Saikia planted tea on two bighas (one bigha equals 0.6 acre). It became a model worth emulating since he apparently encouraged villagers to plant tea and sugar-cane on fallow land. Sugar-cane lost its sheen with excess production; tea remained a profitable business.
And as stand-alone tea factories, called bought leaf factories, began to come up across India, the separation of tea cultivation and tea processing has seen the birth of new models.
Tea Nanny is a fortnightly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. She posts @AravindaAnanth1 on Twitter.