Stepping off the plane in Dibrugarh in the upper reaches of Assam in India’s remote northeast, the first thing that strikes you is the scent of tea. Within seconds of leaving the airport, there’s no mistaking that you’re in tea country; sprawling tea gardens line every road and the sight of undulating green bushes seem endless.
This region sits in the so-called “tea belt” where the tea plant has grown wild for centuries, stretching from Assam in the west to Yunnan in the east. It's a flat, low-lying region with a humid, tropical climate. Tea is grown on flat, fertile plains lying on both sides of the great Brahmaputra River.
Since the early 1800s, tea making here has been dominated by large-scale estates or plantations first established by the British. Almost 200 years of intensive plantation agriculture has taken its toll on the land. Mass production of predominantly CTC (cut, tear, curl) tea for the tea bag market over the past 50 years especially has led to intense pressure to increase yields to keep prices very low. This in turn has created a widespread dependence on chemical fertilisers and pesticides among many of the large estates and a vicious cycle has ensued.
Against this backdrop, Heritage Tea is leading the way for a more back-to-basics approach to tea making. This small factory was founded by Rajen and June Baruah in 2010 to support the growing number of small tea growers in the region and help them develop high quality speciality teas. Rajen was inspired to start Heritage Tea after seeing the changes happening in the industry during his 30-year career working with large industrial tea corporations in Assam, both in the fields and in the factories.
On a visit to Heritage Tea last summer, Rajan explained: “For so many years Assam has had big corporate tea estates. Slowly a lot of small tea growers have come in as larger estates struggle [with low yields and labour issues]. Now as much as 50% of tea in Assam is coming from small tea growers. The leaf that’s coming out of these farms has all the quality of Assam tea. So, there is no question that it’s these small growers that are taking the centre stage in Assam”.
Heritage Tea works with a network of small family tea farms spanning across the north of Assam and the neighbouring state of Arunachal Pradesh. Each farm measures no more than 4-5 acres which helps to cultivate tea using more natural methods. Rajen provides technical support and coaches growers on how to upgrade the quality of their leaf. Strong emphasis is put on strengthening the farm ecosystem and the use of sustainable farming practices like using natural composting and nitrogen fixing plants to improve soil fertility.
Rajen is considered something of a tea maverick and revolutionary in the local tea growing community. What Rajen and his family who are also closely involved in the business are doing goes beyond simply tea making; they’re helping to empower a previously marginalised community, both economically and socially, by offering a viable alternative to the outdated plantation model of tea growing.
Under this model of tea growing which hasn’t changed many would argue since colonial times, tea estates rely heavily on an indentured labour force which means that tea workers are often entirely dependent on the estate owners for everything from housing to food, healthcare, and education. The problems with this this are still very present in large estates and although widely acknowledged remain unresolved.
It's no surprise then that the number of small tea growers in Assam has steadily multiplied over the past 10-15 years as more and more workers break away from large estates. It’s estimated that as much as 50% of all tea in Assam is now produced by the small grower sector. Whilst these small farms can benefit from a sense of ownership, even amongst self-employed small tea growers, there has been a constant struggle as they are mostly paid very little for their raw leaf by bought leaf factories owned and operated by bigger commercial companies to produce low grade CTC tea.
For a region that produces such vast quantities of tea, there has been a slow uptake in adapting to new farming and work methods. Pioneers like Heritage Tea are essential in helping to address the imbalance, by helping to lead a new generation of tea growers not only to simply produce tea, but to upgrade the quality of their leaf, and produce fine tea, the type that sells for higher, more sustainable prices.