All of India is suffering this spring but in Assam “the situation has become very alarming with no rains being reported in two months and below average rainfall the past six months,“ according to growers.
“Temperatures in the gardens are touching 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 C) resulting in no leaf growth,“ according to garden managers.
Sascha Karimpour, president at Dethlefsen & Balk Inc., Aurora, Ill., observes that “this region produces close to 1000 million kgs of tea. A shortage here, therefore can have an impact on global tea prices, much like what we saw in 2012.“
Meterological organizations are warning of a below normal monsoon for much of South Asia, particularly for India and Sri Lanka due to El Niño, a cyclic change in temperature of the Pacific Ocean that raises temperatures by .1 to .2C. Last year was a neutral El Niño.
“We are seeing increasing evidence of an upcoming change in the Pacific Ocean base state that favors the development of a moderate-to-strong El Niño event this Spring/Summer,” reports Dr. Michael Ventrice at Weather Services International. The consensus opinion among meteorologists is 70% likelihood of an El Niño.
“The El Nino effect on the monsoon is likely to push up food prices and geopolitical uncertainties are likely to pump up global commodity rates,“ writes Karimpur.
Rossell India Ltd. operates several Assam gardens. Managing Director C.S. Bedi predicts at least a 10% overall crop loss with April yields down 45% compared to last year.
He said that rainfall has been less than 30% of the average for February through April, “probably the lowest rainfall in living memory.”
The north bank of the Brahmaputra River has had even less rainfall, he said.
Another grower advised Karimpur the “north bank is worst but Golaghat, Jorhat, Sibsagar, Dibrugarh and Tinsukia are also badly hit. Deha Estate and Banamalie are going to stop production and can resume only when the leaf situation improves. Sonabheel Estate has already given a holiday in their garden for six days and will review the conditions thereafter. In Tamulbarie the leaf intake is down to 500 kgs (last year it was 4000-5000 kgs).“
Golaghat-based tea planter Manoj Jallan told the Assam Tribune that “during the last 25 years, I have not experienced such a prolonged rainless period coupled with 40 degree C temperature, 20% to 50% humidity against a normal of 50% to 90% humidity and suspension of plucking in end April. We pray to the rain God to save the Assam tea industry.”
The normal pattern begins the season with rain in late February that builds through March as the new shoots grow. “Unfortunately this did not happen. In fact even April turned out very dry resulting in hardly any leaf development and delaying the second flush,” he said.
In May crops could be down by another 30% for the month but the second flush quality appears only during the last week of May onwards, “hence we don’t foresee much quality loss at this time,” he said. Assam’s second flush will be smaller “and European buyers will be best served by buying in July when we expect the quality to be good,” said Bedi.
“As we wait for the rain promised by all the TV weather channels, it is yet to show its hand! The wait continues and so does the demoralization of the planter; also the physiological damage to the bush multiples,’’ he said, “Hopefully things will improve.”
North Eastern Tea Association (NETA), the Assam Tea Planters’ Association (ATPA) and the Bharatiya Cha Parishad (BCP) jointly carried out a survey in the tea estates.
“After completion of the sample survey, a total crop loss of 10 per cent is feared during the 2014 season, which will be near a whopping quantum of 60 million kgs of tea. Production this year up to end April will be 50% less, which is about 30 million kgs. The output of premium second flush tea will be severely limited,” NETA chairman Bidyananda Barkakoty to the Assam Tribune.
Late last week Darjeeling tea planters rejoiced at the first downpour in two months. Rainfall was not uniform throughout the region but “rain in the hills indicates that the weather is improving,” Chamong Tee Chairman Ashok Lohia told the Economic Times.
Early May rains will boost production of a second flush but the lucrative first flush has already suffered through the driest spring since 1988. Rainfall has been significantly lower than normal since November, a condition that reduces leaf formation. Individual gardens report only half the normal rainfall. The plants will now require three or four days of rain weekly, ideally with sunny mornings and heavy rains at night.
The first flush extends from mid-February through April. The second flush begins in mid-May and continues through June. Teas made during this period are exported mainly to Germany and the European Union and Japan according to Darjeeling Tea Association Chairman SS Bagaria.
Darjeeling produces only a small fraction of India’s annual output but 60% is exported at prices 100 times greater than commodity tea from Assam. The region has 17,500 hectares under tea and produces 8 to 9 million kilos annually.