I recently met an Assam tea grower who was visiting Bangkok, and we talked a bit about his personal history with tea, about sustainability, organic production, and development of orthodox tea processing in Assam. His name is Maddhurjya Gogoi.
I mentioned more about that meeting in this post about sharing tea with a Thai princess, and covered a lot of his personal and tea-oriented biography in this post. As for contacts he’s on Facebook, with another business page there, and a website contact here.
Sharing the ideas will require some summary on my part, and it introduces error for one person to re-summarize what another has already condensed, especially based on communication from a perspective of personal business interest. Take it all for what it’s worth. Passing on a little topic by topic will help with covering ground faster.
Small growers and co-ops in Assam are developing orthodox tea production
This isn’t really news, or controversial. The extent to which individuals are successful and the overall volume of tea being produced seem to require more development to fill in this story. Other parts relate to how demand changes relate to supply changes, to the end-effect difference it makes for tea growers and very small producers, and how this all fits in with what major producers are doing.
I’ve reviewed a number of teas from Halmari, a large plantation producer, and those were fantastic (with more description on their site). According to Maddhurjya that sort of an organization represents a different kind of success story, and progress on a related but different front.
Organic farming related
Maddhurjya told a funny story about how they started producing tea organically because they couldn’t afford fertilizer. That surely is one part of that broad theme. He is more concerned about how chemical fertilizer really does increase plant productivity, weighed against there being other approaches that are more sustainable, and perhaps healthier for consumers.
It doesn’t summarize well but he sees the whole range of issues as connected. If growers are barely able to survive on what they produce their choices about growing methods, or any other aspects, have to reflect their best interest commercially. Such conditions make it harder to consider the long term. If demand is higher for organic products that can even out the plant material production issue, related to use of chemicals being more cost-effective. In short, it’s complicated.
Higher quality tea orthodox production method related
Growers and small producers want to produce better tea, in order to make more from their final products. Per my own understanding (which is limited; I’m not following the Assam tea industry) tea production has only relatively recently been de-regulated, with limitations on processing cooperative development still in effect in the recent past now being lifted.
According to Maddhurjya the knowledge of methods and access to the machinery just weren’t there in the past. I wouldn’t expect him to personally represent a lot of the range of paths to change and modernization for all of Assam, but he has played a personal role in importing equipment from Taiwan used in newer forms of orthodox tea production (with more about that in his life story).
It’s not written yet, but people are working on that. He’s trying to help with making changes himself, related to a limited scope business interest. I reviewed a number of teas by Assamica Agro, which is based on more of a small cooperative model than a small producer model, what Maddhurjya and related small farmers are pursuing.
To a tea consumer and enthusiast it all might boil down to one main concern: how good is the tea? The answer to that will change year to year, and company to company, as better production and processing methods are developed. Even amounts of rain falling will change that, with changes to climate on major input and concern. Right now the teas are pretty good, but plantations like Halmari are setting the bar pretty high, and Darjeeling is much better known for orthodox tea. As for what I tried I’d give the edge to the teas from Maddhurjya over Assamica Agro’s teas (which were still pretty good), with Halmari’s slightly better, but as much just different in style.
“How good is the tea” misses a lot of scope of concern, doesn’t it? If you could drink tea that’s really good, but not the absolute best you could find, at a great value for that quality level, and it helped a small production farmer raise the quality of life for his children and community, then those would make for other valid factors, wouldn’t they? All of that is the case right now. These limited scale producers selling more tea helps them take the next steps.
Of course as with tea production and sourcing anywhere believing stories is a concern, about who benefits most, an original producer or reseller, and organic claims, and so on. Not all the stories everyone is telling are true. But I believe there are common threads and general truths emerging from people like Maddhurjya, along with other exaggeration and marketing spin, and as a groundwork for all of it some real progress is being made.
Wholesale vendors and supply chains aren’t necessarily the “bad guys” in the story but new options can and will help local producers. These are people whose standard of living really could stand to improve. Of course, Assam isn’t the only tea producing region facing such issues, or even the one that tends to get talked about most. But it is interesting hearing more direct versions of such accounts from different places and different types of sources.