Mechanization is the Answer
The cost of labor and the cost of processing tea are squeezing margins at traditional gardens whose only respite of late has been a modest reduction in fuel expense. Almost 80% of the costs of producing tea are fixed. Labor, even though a modest $1.84 daily per worker, constitutes 50% of the cost of production.
Hikes in every other essential input including fertilizer, herbicides and pest control chemicals are reducing earnings and holding back investments in quality at a time when only good quality teas are competitive. Falling prices at auction, less demand for India’s tea exports and greater competition from growers in Kenya and China are making change an urgent requirement.
In response the Tea Board of India has backed several initiatives to mechanize different segments of the tea industry in hopes of reducing energy and labor expense. Pioneering work in the adoption of mechanical harvesting equipment in the Southern regions led to significant reductions in the number of workers needed at harvest. Two workers operating a mechanical harvester for a day can bring in the equivalent of leaf of 15 workers hand-plucking tea.
Energy Efficient Production
This fall a parliamentary panel on commerce criticized the Tea Board for failing to meet production goals which lead the board to establish incentives to replace worn-out processing machinery. A survey of tea processing equipment showed it to be about 60 years old on average. Gardens can now qualify for a 25% subsidy on replacement equipment. Pruning machines and mechanical harvesters also qualify for a 25% rebate of the unit cost.
Field trials from a collaborative effort with the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur demonstrated a newly developed “circular withering trough” holds promise in greatly reducing the energy cost of withering tea. The trials at the Tea Research Center at Nagrakatta, West Bengal, led to an ongoing commercial test at a tea estate in Darjeeling.
“Mechanization requires a pro-active response which as yet has been absent,” writes Nigel Melican, principal at Teacraft Ltd., a U.K. consultancy and engineering firm specializing in modern tea processing.
Melican is calling for a swift “task force” in response to the tea planters’ urgent need to tackle all aspects of mechanization.
India is currently promoting the planting of new stock replacing aging trees which produce fewer leaves and lower quality tea. Growers receive a 30% subsidy during the three-year period it takes for their new plantings mature.
Mechanical harvesting addresses both labor and quality issues, said Melican. “Mechanical harvesting of tea is undoubtedly the answer – as it has been in every other agricultural sector threatened with labor shortage. BUT it is not a solution that has off-the-shelf answers,” he said.
Mechanical harvesting requires machinery – and better machinery true, but it also requires fundamental changes in management understanding and attitude to make machines work successfully, explains Melican. “Machines do not replace hand plucking on a like-for-like basis; to be fully successful replacement of hand labor requires systemic changes in the tea field,” he said.
Now is the time to modify planting to allow mechanization and to adapt field management to optimize mechanization “and to tackle it fast using modern project management methods run by a business qualified Mechanization Tsar.”
A 1998 article in Food Chemistry demonstrated that over time, mechanically harvested tea bested hand plucked tea. “Quality deterioration was mainly due to mechanical injury and non-selective plucking with shear harvesters. However tea obtained by shear-harvesting from a continuously sheared field over a prolonged period was found to be superior,” according to the study of South Indian CTC teas.
The Chinese are managing the same problems superbly but using non-transferable techniques, suited to their industry, that will not help the Indian situation, said Melican.
India’s tea planters, anxious for guidance, are making ad hoc experimentation but planters’ skills are not scientific, so their answers are often a mish mash of myth with a few embedded gems.
“Planters must unite and shout for immediate answers – hammer on the doors of tea research institutes and the universities and demand real and practical answers NOW,” he said.