In Illam, the heart of Nepal’s specialty tea region where only 12 out of 85 farms are certified organic, the demand for organic tea exceeds the supply.
Sarad Subba, owner of Jasbire Tea Factory in Illam has orders for 1000 kilograms per day of leaves used to make orthodox tea for export to China and Europe but only 500 kilograms of tea are collected during the peak of the harvest.
Govinda Dahal, president of the Central Tea Cooperatives Association, told Setopati, that it costs NPRs900,00 ($7,500) to qualify for organic certification, a burden too great for most smallholders in a country where annual per capita earnings average $919.
“When tea production started moving towards small farmers buying their own machines and producing small quantities of specialty tea rather than selling green leaves to the medium-large scale factories, they are essentially taking the responsibility of producing, marketing, compliance, and everything that comes along with it including the cost,” explains Nishchal Banskota, founder of Nepal Tea and son of the family that first qualified for organic certification.
Banskota’s farm in Ranitar is 50 kilometers north of Illam, which sits at 12,000 feet above sea level. The Kanchanjangha Tea Estate produces 60 metric tons of organic tea certified under the United States Department of Agriculture and Japan Agriculture Standards program as well as by Australia and the European Union.
“Farmers are exceptionally good at making teas, but they don’t have the expertise regarding the certifications and the international standards etc. therefore there is a gap of knowledge too,” he said.
In the past, tea factories filled this gap by providing financial and logistical support to farmers supplying leaves. Paying fees and completing paperwork kept farmers focused “on doing what they are passionate and good at: growing the teas plants and harvesting properly rather than wasting time in navigating all the other things with certifications and stuff,” said Banskota. This could be done by organizing co-ops, so they can certify as a group and minimize the cost.
Nepalese smallholders understand the methods of organic farming at its most basic level. These family farmers strive for harmony in nature; avoiding pesticides, hand weeding, conserving water, and preserving soil while tending multiple crops, often within a forest setting. Tea and cardamom are grown for cash, allocated to land unsuited to feed themselves and their livestock.
In Nepal there is a ceiling of 3.5 hectares for farm ownership in the hilly regions, so growers must get the highest price possible. Specialty cultivars, organically grown and certified by third-parties, offer significant benefits over cut, tear, curl (CTC) production but yields are low and costs high.
In many of the world’s tea growing regions 15,000 trees are planted per hectare, yielding 1,500 pounds of tea per acre (1,650 kilograms per hectare). Nepali growers find that hard to achieve anywhere except the foothills. Individual farmers cannot attain economies of scale and increased productivity at large-scale operations yet these growers hand pluck exquisite tea.
Prem Raj Gurung, president of the Tea Producers Cooperatives Ltd., said the government should support the farmers in acquiring the ‘organic’ international certification.
Support for organic growers through government subsidies is gradually happening, said Banskota but a local body that can provide support regarding the logistics, standards and help out from the grassroots level to get the certification accomplished may be needed.
The government is currently implementing an Agriculture Modernization Project that began last year. Fifteen farmers and farmer groups were permitted to create 2,100 larger plots of 10 hectares to grow cardamom and potatoes. The country would like to achieve self-sufficiency in wheat and vegetables in 2018 and paddy and potatoes in 2019 with fruits including kiwi and apple to follow. Nepal is currently self-sufficient in tea.
“The certification bodies should also see if there are cheaper options for smaller scale growers.
Short-term loans just to pay for the certifications might also help the farmers get a head start since it is bound to pay back in the long run!” he said.