India Grades Its Tea Gardens

India tea garden

India tea garden

In July 2016, the Tea Board of India announced it would rank each of the country’s 1,421 registered tea gardens for quality agricultural practices, replantation, infrastructure, and working conditions.

The resulting grades were published recently and the 87 gardens that constitute the Darjeeling Geographical Indicator (GI) did not fare well, garnering only one “A” grade and not a single “A+”. Darjeeling gardens are some of the best known in the world. Teas from the best sell for $400 per kilo and more.

But Tea Board Chairman Santos Sarangi was not evaluating how the tea tastes. The government’s interest is infrastructure and resource conditions and the application of scientific management.

“While the good gardens will be felicitated, those that are performing below the standards will be consulted on how they can make improvements,” writes Sarangi. Tea Board officials say the rating will help gardens identify shortcomings and encourage growers to take steps to address the same.

Thirty-five of the Darjeeling gardens received a “B+” and 39 were graded “B,” with 17 earning a “C.” One received a “D.” A primary concern expressed by evaluators was lower yields compared to much of India and the lack of replanting in the region.

The ranking drew the ire of growers who complained to the press.

“Prateek Poddar, director of Darjeeling Impex and owner of the fabled Namring Tea Estate, whose tea fetched a staggering INRs 11,000 ($168) a kilo through a recent private sale, has challenged the Tea Board’s findings,” according to a report in the Business Standard.

S.S. Bagaria, president of the Darjeeling Tea Growers Association, complained that the parameters used by the tea board “are not convincing.”

The government standards were based on pilot programs in Assam and gardens in the lower-altitude Nilgiri Mountains in southern India where yield per hectare is considered a high priority for meeting the demands of a growing domestic market. Darjeeling produces only 7–8 million kilos annually. In Darjeeling, the emphasis is on quality with an eye toward getting a large share of the $595 million in foreign exchange dollars that tea brings annually.

Organic certifications, evaluations by the Rainforest Alliance, and fair trade and Ethical Tea Partnership certifications stress sustainability and strict adherence to prohibitions against child labor in the gardens. Gardens that do not rely on pesticides invariably suffer greater losses to insects.

Darjeeling growers replant less frequently because high altitude and shorter growing seasons mean it will take 7–10 years for the new growth to yield commercial quantities of leaves. Darjeeling is planted in “China bush” comprised largely of Camellia sinensis and its hybrids, not the faster growing broad leaf C. Assamica. In the mountains, 400 kilos per hectare is considered a good yield while in Assam that same hectare produces an average 2,000 kilos (and in Africa, 5,000 kilos per hectare).

One solution is to modify the standards due to the unique characteristics of high-mountain regions.

Will lower grading impact high-value Darjeeling tea exports?

A.N. Singh, CEO of Goodricke, one of the largest tea exporters from India, says not. “It is unlikely that garden gradation will affect exports or the prices. In the export market, people consider sustainability parameters and laborer welfare measures while buying the tea,” he told the Business Standard.

Source: Tea Board of India, Business Standard