DARJEELING, West Bengal
“It’s the 4th of April but I am wearing a fleece jacket inside my house. Outside it’s gloomy and dark,” says Raju Lama of Darjeeling Tea Leaves, when he answers a late-morning call.
His weather report is an indication of what Darjeeling is experiencing and why that’s worrying. Estimates are that the first flush harvest may decline by as much as 20 percent.
The season began as optimistically as it does every spring. Last year, a Tea Board of India directive called for gardens in Darjeeling to close by the 10th of December and to start plucking teas for orthodox processing no sooner than Feb. 11. The idle period allows trees to rest, improving quality and allowing time for winter pruning, groundwork and removal of old stock. The winter rains too arrived as hoped and for the first time in a decade, on Jan. 29 there was snowfall!
Early February saw a welcome rain, beneficial to the harvest. But although the plucking was scheduled to start it could only begin in the low elevation gardens, like Longview, Namring and Rohini. Gardens at higher elevations, including Goomtee (4,000 ft/1200 m) and adjacent Jungpana (4,900 ft/1500 m) just did not have enough crop. To make matters worse, March saw an unexpected hailstorm that affected several gardens severely. Since then skies are cloudy and foggy, and plant growth is subdued, and young buds are not yet open. Night temperatures are 8-90C with daytime highs of 16-180C – at least 40C below normal. A lack of sunshine is seen as the main culprit.
The concern comes from the year on year decline that’s reported from Darjeeling, from 9 million kilograms in 2013 to 7.5-8 million kilograms in 2018. Estimates are for 8 million kilograms in 2019. Demand is down with buyers in the European Union, Japan and Germany refusing to support prices that last year climbed 20-30 percent.
Darjeeling tea usually fetches around $4.4 per kilograms in prime markets in Germany, the UK and elsewhere in Europe, according to a report in the Business Standard.
“Exports to Europe and Japan have fallen as international buyers are cautious about procuring even the first and second flush teas which have always been in high demand,” said Kaushik Basu, secretary general, Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA).
Then, there’s the question of the workers’ demands. On March 5 there was a meeting between the Darjeeling Tea Association and the Himalayan Plantation Labour Union. The agenda was to address the workers demand for payment of arrears from Jan.-Mar 2018. There was no agreement and the Union threatened to stop work. It’s a Catch 22 with the association insisting that they are still recovering from the 104-day Gorkha strike of 2017 and are unable to pay. Local media reported Risheehaat tea estate was closed for a week in late March over unpaid arrears that were cleared March 30.
Absenteeism during the harvest is as high as 40 percent on some estates and there are fewer temporary workers.
Further compounding the problem is reduced yield from the century-old old chinary bushes (native to northern Burma, Yunnan and Sichuan provinces in China). The introduction of higher-yield clonals has helped but as Raju Lama says, “You can’t have only clonals in your garden. All quality gardens rely on a majority chinary bushes.”
Madhab Thakur worked in Darjeeling for 18 years at Gayabari, Seeyok, and Selimbong Tea Estates and was the factory manager at Longview Tea Estate until June of last year.
Most of the gardens are organic Thakur observes, “there is less availability of organic fertilizer compost and other organic plant nutrients.” Landslides killed 38 people in 2015 and destroyed many hectares of terraced gardens near Kalimpong and Kurseong leading some estates to no longer farm large tracts of land deemed unstable.
Gopal Upadhayay, manager tea procurement & operations at Teabox, an online retail platform says, “On the positive side of things, a subdued growth led to a better quality of manufacture which translated in cup character – more intense aroma, better taste profile and overall improvement in quality.”
Gopal’s tasting trips to the gardens for the first flush seem to have left him quite enthusiastic: “Whatever samples we received; we have seen an improvement in overall quality this year. There was an aggravated cup character witnessed in high elevation gardens. Particularly, the teas which were made of clonal cultivars (AV2, P312, SY1240) were immensely fragrant, aromatic and stood out when compared to previous years.”
Making up for the low yield is a higher price for better quality. Gopal reports a 30-40 percent rise in prices combined with a strong overseas and domestic demand.
“Average prices for spring flush hovered around $50 (INRs3500) kilograms till end-March, compared with $21.50 (INRs1500) kilograms last year.” A small batch of the specialty Moonlight Spring White from Goodricke’s Badamtam estate is being retailed on Teabox for $2,875 (INRs200,000) kilograms, a never-heard-of price in Darjeeling. The tea retails for $75 for 25 grams (about $7.50 per cup).
Tea estates earn about 35 percent of their gross during the first flush with some gardens reporting as much as 70 percent of sales for the year.
The harvest continues for a month which will give a better picture of this year’s spring flush, as all eyes are on the skies, hoping the clouds will clear and the sun will be out, and the story will have a better ending.