Oothu Tea Estate, Manimuttar, India

MANIMUTTAR, Tamil Nadu, India

Oothu Tea Estate

Oothu Tea Estate, one of Bombay Burmah’s Singampatti group of estates, began with the lease of 8,500 acres from the Rajah of Singampatti.

In the end, only 3,000 acres were cultivated, and the Oothu garden comprises just a little more than 526 acres nestled at the foot of the Western Ghats. The rest of the land is a buffer zone between Oothu and its sister tea gardens: Manjolai and Manimuttar and their biggest neighbor, the Kalakad Mundanthurai Wildlife Sanctuary, including a green belt that helps animals cross from one part of the jungle preserve to another without venturing into the tea.

Founded in 1929, and situated near southern most tip of India, Oothu originally grew cardamom, cinchona, and some coffee but transitioned to tea between 1960 and 1973, giving Oothu’s plants a current average age of 45.

Oothu lies at 3,500-4,000 ft. above sea level and produces between 16,000 and 17,000 kg (35,250-37,500 lbs) per hectare. The annual harvest averages 300,000 kg (about 661,387 lbs). Singampatti’s other organic areas produce an additional 300,000 to 350,000 kg of organic tea.

Oothu plants are mostly clonals. Seedling plants, according to Salil Chaturvedi, Singampatti’s Group Manager, are more susceptible to pests and diseases and not really suited to organic cultivation.

“Our bread and butter is the black orthodox tea and green tea,” says Chaturvedi. The estate’s green FOP is a premium product and about 20 to 25 percent of production. Oothu’s standard green tea has a flavor reminiscent of green mangoes, he adds.

Leaf binsThe green FOP and BOPF sell for between 250 and 300 Rs/kg (about $2.50-$3/lb). Oothu’s black orthdox teas include FOP, Pekoe, and BOPF. These typically sell for 180-300/kg ($1.80-$3/lb). Oothu also has some specialty teas including Green Fines, GFBOP, and Green Tips, a green-tipped black tea, which run 700-1700 Rs/kg (about $7.00- $17/lb). Baimudan, a white tea made from hand-picked buds, has a unique four-day manufacturing process that results in a tea that Chaturvedi says is light and mild with a complex, distinctive flavor. Production is limited to about 13,500 kg (297,625 lbs) per year, and the tea typically sells for about INR500/kg (roughly $5.06/lb). Oothu also makes about 5000 kg (11,025 lbs) annually of oolong, but only for special orders.

Fermentation Bins
Fermentation bins

The factory in the Oothu garden dates to 1992. It’s dedicated to green and specialty tea production and operates only when needed. Oothu black tea is processed with Singampatti’s other organic teas at the Manimuttar garden factory, which has been in operation since 1952 and runs year-round. Keeping the factory running efficiently is an ongoing process, according to Chaturvedi. Manimuttar factory’s newest addition is a Japanese machine that sorts tea by color.

 

 Factory Floor
 Factory floor

Export Details
Europe, the USA, Japan, and the UK buy most of Ooothu’s black orthodox and green teas. Baimudan goes to Europe and the USA, and Oolong almost exclusively to Europe. Teas are typically sold directly from the estate. They have both organic and biodynamic certification, and the factories are ISO certified.

2010 Harvest Report
Chaturvedi doesn’t anticipate any surprises with this year’s harvest, and expects to have much the same quality and quantity as last year. With the Oothu oolong that’s been in production about four years, the garden produces all types of teas and there’s not much possibility of new products in the future. Nevertheless, Oothu is open to special requests from buyers. “For example, we recently made an organic green dust tea for one buyer,” says Chaturvedi. “Tea is a perishable commodity,” he notes, so the garden doesn’t produce a specialty product that has no local market unless there’s a buyer who asks for it.

Going Organic
The decision to take the garden organic — Oothu was India’s first organic tea garden — was made in 1988. The garden was an excellent candidate for going organic, according to Chaturvedi.

“Oothu estate is nestled at the very tip of India, at the very end of the Western Ghats, so our organic areas are totally isolated.” Except for Manimuttar and Manjolai, Oothu’s partly organic sister gardens, “there are no other gardens in this area.” The move is a natural follow-up to the decision to leave much of the leased land uncultivated, according to Chaturvedi.

“Protecting the environment was part of the ethos from the start forward.” In 1991, 312.5 hec (775 acres) of land, including Oothu, was certified as organic. In 1995 the garden was Fair Trade certified. Current total area under organic cultivation is 390 hec, (960 acres). “The company is convinced that this is the way forward,” says Chaturvedi, even though as the garden went organic it saw a 30 to 35 percent drop in productivity. This, he says, is largely because the organically grown tea plants must compete with weeds for nutritents. On the flip side, he adds the weeds are helpful for controling soil erosion. The transition was not easy. “Tea being a perennial crop, not much information was available on organic practices and we have evolved as we have gone along. Finding the right combination of nutrition and other things has been an important milestone.”

Much of the garden’s daily routine remains the same as for any other tea garden, except for the business of making and spreading compost. Each day, up to 40 workers collect raw material and make the 120 thousand tons of compost Oothu’s tea plants require each year. Compost piles must be built in a particular way to maintain the garden’s Demeter certification.