In October 2012, Ray Lacorte, our Head of Operations, traveled to India where he visited Oothu Estate, a Fair Trade tea garden that we have worked with for two decades. Below, he captures some of his trip to share with us:
One of the key components of Choice Organic Teas English Breakfast is Black BOPF from Oothu Tea Estate, a certified organic and Fair Trade Certified tea estate located in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Both Choice Organic Teas and Oothu are pioneers in organic agriculture and social responsibility. Choice Organic Teas is the first exclusively certified organic tea line in North America. Similarly, Choice Organic Teas launched the first Fair Trade Certified™ teas in the U.S. In turn, Oothu Tea Estate is the first certified biodynamic and Fair Trade certified plantation in all of India.
Choice Organic Teas started buying certified organic teas from Oothu in 1992 and hence, my visit last October marked a twenty-year milestone between Choice Organic Teas and Oothu. Oothu tea gardens are situated in the core of Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve, a gorgeous expanse located in the Southern Western Ghats in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. At an elevation of approximately 4000 feet, the view from Oothu offers nothing less than spectacular views of the Manimuthar Lake and towering peaks of the Western Ghats.
My journey to Oothu began from Kalladaikurichi, a positively hot and small town in Indian terms with a population of a little over 25,000. Kalladaikurichi’s claim to fame is merely its location, which is situated at the base of the tiger reserve, a popular tourist destination for wildlife viewing, with mainly tiger searching rather than actual watching given the rarity of sightings. My late afternoon drive up to the tea estates from Kalladaikurichi was on a relatively well-maintained and winding road and yielded a modest set of wildlife sightings: a curious wild boar, Nilgiri langur monkeys, an assortment of songbirds, wild jungle fowls, and of course peacocks, the national bird of India.
Upon arrival at one of the tea estate manager’s bungalow, we were served afternoon tea, a fine aromatic cup of Oothu black tea complemented with a generous selection of Indian-spiced donuts and sweets. Needless to say, the cooler temperatures afforded by the higher elevation and breeze emanating from the Indian Ocean were a welcome relief from the heat in Kalladaikurichi.
The following morning was sunny yet chilly with the steady ocean breeze; I found out later that the ocean was a mere forty kilometers away. The climate and terrain of Oothu reminded me of areas in Eastern Washington in late spring while the prevalence of eucalyptus trees was reminiscent of Australia where I spent my childhood.
South India experienced an unseasonably dry monsoon season leading to lower than average annual rainfall throughout the region. The tea estates have endured a record-setting drought, which the region had not experienced since 1975. At the time of my visit, rainfall level at the tea estates was seventy percent lower than average. Nothing demonstrated the dry conditions more than the Maripunam Lake, which had visibly receded from its normal shore levels, with helpless small boats lying in dry beds. Nevertheless, the tea leaves kept the rolling hills an immaculate green and the tea bushes themselves looked robust.
Oothu is part of the Singampatti Group which consists of a number of tea estates covering over eight hundred hectares. Singampatti means the “River of Pearls” and our trek’s first stop was located at a river from where the name could have easily been inspired. Its tranquil presence under a charming old bridge was only a mere foreshadowing of the scenaries we would enjoy throughout our visit
Plucking tea leaves from the bush commences around 9 am and is performed by hand and shears. A tea plucker can achieve a daily yield anywhere from a dozen kilograms to one-hundred kilograms, depending on the conditions of the bushes and immediate elements. The health of the tea leaves is highly dependent on the condition of the soil, which is enhanced by a rigorous composting program. Composting stations are found throughout the tea estates and are an essential component of organic agriculture. Quality of the compost is further enriched by adopting biodynamic farming methods, which accelerates the composting time and improves the nutrients in the soil.
The plucked leaves are taken to the Oothu tea processing factory which consists of a series of machinery for the last phases of creating the perfect tea leaf. One of the key steps in tea processing is the drying of the leaves. Steaming is a method typically employed in India to dry newly plucked moist leaves. The branches from trees in the estates are used as firewood in the steaming stage. Throughout the various manufacturing stages whether it was in the fermentation areas or the rolling and drying of the leaves, strict quality control and safety measures were employed for the protection of the tea and the workers.
As with any of my visits to manufacturing facilities, I went away with a much greater appreciation of the work involved in creating a finished product. At Oothu, care is extended well beyond the agricultural processes. Fair Trade Premiums received by Oothu go toward helping workers and their communities in providing a variety of services. One of these benefits includes funding a hospital staffed with two doctors and fully-trained nurses. The hospital is fully equipped and prepared to handle a variety of conditions, including maternity care.
Likewise, day care and an elementary school are also provided for children of plantation and factory workers. During a brief visit at the daycare center on my last day in Oothu, we were serenaded by a cheerful group of children singing a nursery rhyme. Upon translation of the rhyme, I found out that the song was “Rain, rain go away, come again some other day,” and instantly understood why the drought had remained stubbornly persistent.