Sri Lanka: Crisis of the tea industry

by Dr U.Pethiyagoda

( February 26, 2017, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The tea industry is continually in “crisis”. This was so even 40 years ago, at which time (1975) my intimate direct contact with the industry ceased. I have however maintained my interest. I have from a long time earlier, entertained serious reservations about the viability of the industry. I must qualify my remarks by recognizing that there are enterprises that have thrived within the industry. But, these are in the marketing sector, and benefited by imaginative and skillful marketing. My concerns are primarily with the growing aspects.

I wonder how it is, that while the industry as a whole is considered profitable, one is hard put to find an individual large estate or a corporate body (e.g The Regional Companies, SPC or JEDB) that can boast of consistent profits? For a long time, Low-country Smallholdings have been claimed to be profitable, but they have recently been reported to be in decline. Why?, I shall comment on, later.

I have argued consistently, that tea represents extremely poor land use, in our context. It acts adversely in respect of Soil Conservation, and has serious deleterious effects on the physical and chemical attributes of soil. Considering this as cost, and even at a profit, tea represents a poor return on investment (sunken costs). As early as 1873, the alienation of land above the 5,000 foot contour, was banned by the Secretary of State for the Colonies. Subsequent Legislation has endorsed this, and lowered the limit further. Despite this, practice (mainly for Tea) has only observed these in the breach.

Except where tea provides a complete protective cover, the loss of soil by erosion is disastrous. Poorly managed tea, and soil disturbance and exposure during replanting are the major causes. The use of “rehabilitation grasses”, mainly Mana and Guatemala (selected primarily because they are unattractive to poachers) are, as expected, nearly useless. Fodder grasses, Citronella, Vetiver grass and even perhaps Sugarcane, as possible substitutes are not seriously considered.

An important factor influencing soil use for agriculture is its “reaction” or pH or acidity. Most useful crops favour a reaction near neutrality or a pH value of 7.0. Most tea soils record values between about 4.5 and 5.5, but in extreme instances, can approach 3.9 This value nearly marks the lower limit for crop growth – except for coarse grass or Cactus – neither of which can excite interest. It has to be noted that a shift of one unit of pH represents a ten-fold change in acidity. Thus a soil reading a pH of 4.0, is 1,000 times more acid than a neutral soil (of pH 7). Acidity is very important because it influences the capacity of a soil to retain nutrients. This limitation in tea soils is one reason that they require regular application of fertilizer and react quickly to any delay.

In Temperate agriculture, “liming” is a regular practice to support arable agriculture and improve stability and guards against drastic increases of acidity. Tea cultivation does not adopt this practice and until relatively recently relied on sulphate of ammonia, to cater to a heavy need for nitrogen as nutrient. Sulphate of ammonia is a known increaser of acidity. Consequently, tea soils are poor in organic matter and therefore moisture retention, and almost devoid of earthworms and invisible favourable micro-organisms. All these are important determinants of soil fertility.

With all due respect to practitioners of the art, I have to confess that I am uncompromisingly suspicious of the practice of “tea-tasting”. Since the saleability of product relies heavily on taster evaluations, it is necessary to detail my reasons for doubt. Readers may recall that there was a time when the newspapers published a list of prices realized by the produce of individual estates. Sometimes prices varied by a few cents. Say, one tea may have fetched Rs 2.50 while another fetched Rs 2.55. Now, I question whether any palate is sensitive enough to detect a taste variation of about 2% (05cts on Rs2.50). I doubt this, but would be convinced if different tasters would price a tea without reference to the preceding sale price. One might mention that serious studies on wine-tasting which has close parallels with tea, has shown that description of wine attributes are merely a matter of jargon, and largely bluff! I do not deny that there are good-tasting brews and poor ones, but I question the assumed precision and reject such criteria as “infusion” (which is basically the properties of the spent leaf left after the liquid is poured out) as a determinant of price. It seems as logical as a claim that the taste of an omelet is defined by the colour of the eggshell!

Whenever tea tasters have been persuaded to engage in objective testing, the results have not been encouraging. I know very worthy persons whose livelihoods have relied on this profession, I tender my sincere apologies, but I feel entitled to an opinion, however false or uncomfortable! A common explanation for a lack of consistency in pricing between tasters, is allegedly due to their “buying for different markets”. This seems to me to be almost as feeble as astrologers claiming that horoscope readings by different practitioners can vary due to “differences in interpretation”! Sorry about this but not an acceptable excuse!

Such doubts reinforce my argument that the tea industry is on a weak wicket if its well-being relies on imperfect organoleptic evaluations. However, if sanctity is claimed for the art, and if it helps in securing profitability for our industry, so be it!

I need to next detail a hypothesis to account for the reported decline of yields of Low-country tea, that is said to be surfacing now. Low-country plantations are relatively young. They also occupy lands that have been previously rubber lands, forest or scrub jungle. This probably ensures that these soils are inherently fertile. For instance, in studies where tea soils were compared with those from scrub jungle in the vicinity, every criterion that marked soil fertility was better in the scrubland soil.

Our major export markets are in Europe, the US, Russia and the Middle East. Each market has its preferences – the UK is said to go for Quality and The Middle East for colour. Thus the former favours tea grown at high elevations while the latter prefers low growns.

Unfortunately, the tea industry seems always to be in a state of crisis. If it is not a case of poor yield due to unfavourable weather, it is a question of poor quality and unremunerative price. The basic fact is that it is helpless as it is weak in both production and pricing parameters.

Primary commodities have nearly always been unfavourable to the producer. Various palliative measures have been tried, generally ending in failure. Tea is no exception. Indeed, when one considers the wide variety in the choice of beverages (including water and milk), on offer to the customer, it is a wonder that tea even commands the market that it does. Of course, there is the diehard fancier, the notional “British Housewife’” who will continue to cherish her “cuppa”. This is sadly, a small and dwindling market.

Tea is so deeply entrenched in our colonial history that its hasty abandonment is neither feasible nor prudent. But in this day and World, it is unlikely that it will continue to survive in its present state. That some 250,000 or so hectares, including many of the areas in the most salubrious surroundings, are devoted to the crop is a fact. Can this resource be put to better use? Are we willing to concede that a planned and methodical phasing out is preferable to a possible calamitous collapse?

In addition to the large land resource, two of the great assets are a hard-working labour force and a capable management. The former is dwindling, seeking greener pastures and the latter has fled the country. The labour displays its enterprise in the competence with which it manages its dairy cattle. On the field management side, during its heyday, the industry captured the best it could from the school-leaving population. Their operations were largely governed by a combination of athletic prowess and a high sense of integrity and conduct. This was appreciated and carefully nurtured by Senior Management. Whether with State taking over and the inevitable substitution of ethics and initiative by rules and regulations, has resulted in a deterioration of standards, is a moot point. But anecdotal evidence is that it has.

How best the physical resources of infrastructure and land and the less tangible talent and hard-working labour can be harnessed, is the challenge. Nearly half a century ago, I diverted my attention towards the possibilities of raising other useful crops on tea land. The results were disappointing. Of several crops tried, none were even barely successful. The underlying problem was probably the high acidity of the soil, probably aggravated by decades of tea cultivation. An answer seemed to be the practice of “liming”. Sadly, here too the results were depressing. If memory serves me right, a massive incorporation of six tons per acre equivalent of “quick lime” – the most powerful means of raising the pH, managed to shift the existing pH around 4.5, by only a few decimal points – and that too for a transient period of a few months. The situation looked grim – but this needs to be freshly checked out. The somewhat accommodating possibilities are fodder grass and timber (forests). For a start, land above the 5,000 foot contour should (as required by Law and by reason), revert to forest. For ease, the tea could be left untended to grow into trees, which will be displaced when existing forest species will take over. Water resources will significantly improve as catchments and sources get better protected.

Considering the overwhelming importance of the tea industry, we need to answer a few questions from ourselves. Among them:-

(i) Is the damage caused to the soil environment acceptable?

(ii) Is the current return commensurate with the investment – in sunk and operating costs?

(iii) Does tea represent the best use of land and managerial and labour resources?

(iv) Is it safe to rely on inexact measures of quality and price?

(v) Can we prudently expect a continuing and stable demand for tea?

If the answers to the above questions are an unequivocal “Yes”, then we could continue “as is”. If not, for any or some, the time is ripe for critical planning and course correction. After all, a score of 150 not out, is years enough to make way for successors, if need be.

The search for substitute crops and a better balanced land use technology should be relentlessly continued. The resource of nearly a quarter million hectares cannot afford to be sub-optimally utilized.

I was preaching this doctrine nearly half a century ago. I can only hope that the coin will drop even now– however belatedly.

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