Nestled amid the lush hills of Kurseong in Darjeeling district of West Bengal, is a tea estate that has been transformed by organic farming. About two decades ago, the Ambootia tea estate was close to financial ruin: heavy dependence on chemical farming had been its undoing. Today, the 966-hectare estate is fully organic and annually exports about 165 tonnes of Darjeeling tea (of 24 types) to Europe, the us, Iraq, Libya and Japan. In England, a variety of Ambootia tea is sold exclusively in Harrods for Rs 25,000 per kg. Called Harrod's Tea, it is also served at the store's world-famous restaurant, the Georgian.
Besides Ambootia, several other tea estates in the area have turned organic. "In Darjeeling, 26 of the 76 functional tea gardens have turned organic and biodynamic. We need to protect our tea estates as industrialised countries have become very strict about presence of pesticide residues in tea and many Indian tea consignments have been rejected," says H C Mukhia of Specialised Agricultural and Industrial Consultancy in Bio-organic and Bio-dynamic Farming, Darjeeling.
As a first step, it was decided to use cow dung as manure. When the management found the quality of manure available unsatisfactory (it wasn't properly matured), it bought 84 cows in 1995 to set up a cowshed. But running the cowshed turned out uneconomical because of the staff that had to be hired just to look after the cattle. The management then came out with a novel idea. "The cows were handed over to estate workers, and a deal was struck. The workers would give cow dung and urine free to the management, whereas they could keep the milk for their family needs. This ensured their active participation. At present, there are 384 cows in Ambootia tea estate managed by the workers. As a further incentive, the management now 'buys' the cow dung and urine from the workers," says Bansal. The estate annually produces 300 tonnes of compost using dung and dry leaves, which is enough for its needs. Recently, vermicomposting (using earthworms to make compost) was also started. Leguminous plants have been grown for nitrogen fixation. Gotimala grass, a deep-rooted local variety, has been planted to help in soil aeration.
Turning organic was not a smooth transition. Initially, the yield fell. According to Bansal, in 1994, just before going organic, Ambootia produced 200 tonnes of Darjeeling tea, while the figure for 1997 was a mere 137 tonnes. Gradually, the production picked up: in 1998, it touched 178 tonnes. In 2000, when most tea estates lost 50-60 per cent of yield to bad weather, Ambootia's losses were as low as 7-8 per cent. Bansal attributes this to organic farming, which has increased the immunity of tea bushes to diseases and pests. The annual production now is about 170 tonnes.
But Ambootia has not stopped at organic farming. In 1996, it introduced biodynamics: a system of agriculture that strives to build soil fertility through natural, homeopathic-type preparations (see table: The healing touch).
Apart from increasing soil fertility and tea quality, turning organic has had other benefits. The health of 913 permanent workers seems to have improved. "Cases of cold, fever and stomach illness have reduced. Less money is being spent on medicines," says Bansal.