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The Simbong Division of Glenburn Tea Estate

The challenges of growing organic tea

by on September 6th, 2016

As we look for one of those little symbols on a packet that tells us our food and drink is organic, do we ever stop to think about what it really takes to be organic? Just grown without pesticides, would be the simple answer, but in reality there is a whole lot more that has to be done and many challenges to overcome, especially when it comes to converting a tea garden to organic production, as Kate has found out since she’s been at Glenburn.

 

Kate: 

 

For the past 10 years, Glenburn has been preparing for this moment. Being able to offer the world a Darjeeling tea that is both premium and organic has always been their goal. But the serious drops in yield that are an inevitable by-product of the first stage of organic conversion have always been a worry, alongside the risk that the quality of the finished product could be affected. Since Glenburn’s focus has always been on producing Darjeeling tea of the highest quality, they must tread carefully in order to maintain their reputation. Now, after years of practice with methods of organic farming and gaining the knowledge and experience they need, they are ready to take the first step.

 

Here at Glenburn, the 400 hectares of tea are divided into three divisions: Glenburn, Kimble and Simbong. On the 1st June 2016, Simbong division started the process to become organic. What does this mean in practical terms? Well, the tea bushes are in for a bit of a hard time, as they’ll be going Cold Turkey, so to speak. Not to mention the drop in crop yield, which is pretty dramatic: an average of 35-40% in the first year. This means that going organic is a serious undertaking – a garden needs to be able to support itself through this conversion, if done in the wrong way, this drop in production could put a garden out of business within a year – so they must tread carefully.

 

 

The Simbong Division of Glenburn Tea Estate

The Simbong Division of Glenburn Tea Estate

 

Why does production drop so much when going organic? The first answer is that a lot of the leaves are going to be eaten by pests. From 1st June, the tea plants stopped getting any help from chemicals to kill off anything that wants to eat them. Then there’s food – there’ll be no more living off takeaway pizzas, as it were. No longer can the garden go and buy their ready-made fertilizer, the one that the plants have been eating for many years. Now they have to make their own organic stuff, and, like a child being forced to eat its broccoli, the plants aren’t going like it at first.

 

As Mr. Gomes, the expert in organic certification, explains to me “It’s like with a human body – if the body is used to certain medicines and ready made food, it is going to become weak when these are taken away, and it will take a certain amount of time to adapt to life without them.” So in the first year, the tea is going to weaken, but, as we’ll see later, its going to come back fighting.

 

So how will Glenburn make sure that the plants are getting the right nutrition? They’ll make their own fertiliser, composted for 3 months. All the ingredients must also originate from the Simbong division too, so that no chemicals are going into the fertiliser’s ingredients. But as anyone who has an allotment will know – this process is far more labour intensive than simply nipping to the garden center or a sack of the ready made stuff – so imagine how many more man hours are needed to make fertiliser for 64 acres of tea – and the cost that is going to incur, just at the point when production is going down.

 

Then there are the pests, and these really are going to be a pain in the proverbial backside. Again, Glenburn is going to have to make its own herbal solutions – a delightful-sounding fermented concoction of plants with natural insecticidal properties mixed with things that come out of cows and then diluted with water. In the 1st year, this isn’t going to do much good, but after a year or two, the plants will start to respond to these natural pesticides. The bushes will also be interspersed with plants like Citronella, Wild Sunflower and Lantana Camera – all natural insect repellents. And so an organic tea garden is a beautiful sight – with plenty of Neem trees for shade (their seeds can also be made into oil which deters pests), bright, spiky citronella and wild flowers – the fields look diverse and natural.

 

 

The seeds of the Neem Tree, used for natural pest-repellent

The seeds of the Neem Tree, used for natural pest-repellent

 

The Simbong Division already uses Neem trees for shade and Citronella for hedgerows

The Simbong Division already uses Neem trees for shade and Citronella for hedgerows

 

 

 

But some bugs are persistent, and unlike a conventional garden, where you can use a small, localized application of pesticides to get rid of an area of infestation, in a field that is in the process of going organic and not yet responding its new medicine, what can you do? Well, get them by hand of course. Apparently the tea manager Mr. Hussein at Glenburn has taught the tea-pickers to recognize and eliminate a certain pest, the Helopeltis (or Tea Mosquito). Again – meticulously finding and killing each tiny bug by hand is going to take a lot more time and human effort than simply spraying an area.

 

 

The Helopeltis, or Tea Mosquito

The Helopeltis, or Tea Mosquito

 

 

 

A leaf damaged by Helopeltis

A leaf damaged by Helopeltis

 

Then there are the residents of Glenburn. When you want to go organic, you don’t just certify the tea leaves, you certify the whole area of land, so what about the people that live there? Well, essentially, they have to be organically certified too. Anything they grow in their own gardens will have to be organically produced, and no using chemical detergents for washing in case the water gets into the fields, or vaccinating their livestock, because their waste will be used for the compost mentioned earlier.

 

But going organic means helping a garden’s workers to live in a chemical-free environment, and this is just one of the many advantages of going organic.

 

 

The freshly picked Simbong leaf is sorted. Pest affected leaves are removed

The freshly picked Simbong leaf is sorted. Pest affected leaves are removed

 

Once the tea plants have got used to their new healthy regime, they will be fitter and stronger than ever. Organic tea plants are more resistant to drought, because they haven’t had their top layer of soil burnt off by weedicide. And the garden environment will thrive with wildlife. In non-organic gardens, pesticides kill ALL bugs, including the ones that don’t harm the tea and kill the ones that do (just like Antibiotics kill off all the good bacteria in the human body, as well as the bad ones) – but in organic gardens those helpful bugs can live. With the right input of nutrients, over 3 years the tea plants will develop a fantastic inner strength and resistance. If all goes well with Simbong division, there’ll be talk of converting the whole estate over the next few years. But with the amount of challenges being faced, it needs to be a slow, steady and sustainable process.

 

So organic works – and in fact around 80% of Darjeeling gardens are now organic. But we have to remember that organic plants do not necessarily make good quality tea – that is still down to the individual estate. Canton’s philosophy has always been to choose organic but only where we don’t sacrifice quality and taste. And anyone who has tasted Glenburn tea won’t doubt that its top notch. So we are happy to hold on patiently, in the knowledge that Glenburn’s organic Darjeeling will undoubtedly be a cut above the rest. Good things come to those who wait.

 

If you’re interested in trying tea from the Glenburn Estate, we currently have three seasonal First Flush Darjeeling teas available on our website.

 

Read more on the blog:

Canton Tea and Pesticides: How we guarantee our tea is safe

Tea and biodynamic farming

A visit to the organic Lingia estate in Darjeeling

 

 

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