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Farmers Are Talking Tea

December 30, 2010

in Nepal, Philanthropy

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Farmer Gombu Sherpa of Ahale is happy to talk about his future growing tea.

The buzz in mountainous villages in our project area is TEA! As I made a short tour of tea farms and the new factory site last week, I continually met groups of farmers who were talking tea–how much they were earning, how much they were investing in the new joint factory, how many new saplings they were growing and selling, and when the next cutting training would be happening with a plant expert. Everywhere we went, the talk was of tea. Farmers tell me with confidence that “the future of tea is good.” For risk-averse small farmers, that kind of confidence can come from only one place–experience.

While we have been building the project over 10 years, this past year local interest has spread widely as success is becoming visible. Farmers who planted early (and patiently let their tea mature for 7+ years) now have good initial earnings and are ready to expand their plantations. They are selling regularly in their village areas, and demand still outstrips supply in the nearby market center of Khadbari (where I lived for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer). Hand-rolled local tea is sold there as quickly as it is produced, and people are constantly asking for more. Farmers who know how to hand process tea also buy raw leaf from less experienced farmers, so people with different levels of skill all have earning potential.

This spring, our project director Parshu Dahal secured a grant to build a processing factory. This factory is innovative in two key regards. Unlike other factories owned by a small group of wealthy individuals, this factory will be jointly owned by over 120 small farmers, offering increased earnings for them and protecting the area from outside speculators. The factory is also bringing new technology from Denmark in the form of a more efficient machine. Well suited to small-scale production, this machine requires less fuel and produces high quality tea.

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Community meetings are held outdoors because there is no building in a central area.

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Parshu Dahal facilitates a discussion on joint ownership of the new tea factory.

With the establishment of a jointly-owned factory and with tea selling regularly on the local market, demand for raw leaf is continually going up. Farmers are expanding their holdings, new farmers are getting involved, and people with established plants are doing a good business with plant nurseries. Take Buddhi Rai who earned ~$350 this year by selling cuttings and saplings. That’s substantial income in this region. What did he do with the money? He bought a water buffalo which will provide milk and organic fertilizer. Plus it will give babies that can be sold for a good profit. He used the remainder of the money to buy food. Land in this area is quite bad for farming grains like rice, millet, or barley. Tea as a cash crop allows people to convert unusable land into a source of earning.

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Parshu and farmers examine part of a tea nursery. With over 300,000 plants in nurseries, tea plantations will grow by nearly 50% in the next 2 years.

It has taken years for the plants to mature and become a viable source of income, but the timing couldn’t be better. With the arrival of a new dirt road into the area, the traditional way to earn cash (by portering heavy loads through the mountains) has been displaced by vehicles. Cardamom, which is a high-value cash crop, is being attacked by an incurable disease. Tea is an important new cash crop that can offset these economic setbacks and create long-term revenue streams. The good earnings are  attractive enough to help keep young people in agriculture instead of migrating to already burgeoning urban centers.

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After completing his education in Kathmandu, Prabesh Rai (center) has moved back to his village to plant tea and be his own boss.

Prabesh Rai was living and studying in Kathmandu, but at 29 he completed his studies and moved back to his home village in Diding. He tells me, “Cash crop farming is good work because you’re free. If you work for someone else, they have control. I am my own boss. I have 9,000 plants in a nursery, and I will plant them all next year.”

What happens next?

In 2011, we will continue to facilitate business registration and factory construction as well as offer technical training on cutting, pruning, and harvesting. We will also continue to support tea nurseries and new planting. We hope that within 2 years we’ll see initial harvests of 4000-6000 pounds of tea and a 50% increase in the number of plants–from 600,000 to 900,000. Most importantly, we want to establish a solid market for the tea so that farmers will have a viable new source of income. In rural Nepal, cash earning is essential for health, home, and education.

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