We have all seen photographs of tea plantations. Primly groomed row upon row of tea bushes. Each bush, neat and tidy, pruned to about waist height. The leaves and bud eminently accessible, plucked with ease by an experienced picker. And that is the source of most of the tea we drink.
Now imagine a forest – full of tea trees. Not bushes of a mere 3 feet but 30 feet tall sturdy giants. Growing wild and unaided with no fertilizers or pesticides, completely native to the region. Remote forests, sparse populations and no pollution – now how good does that sound? If only someone could take on the task of plucking leaves from this tea forest and processing these, you could be drinking truly organic tea.
Luckily for us, that is a task that has been taken on by Aijulie and her sisters, Julie and Jemshe. Occasionally but ably assisted by their Guwahati based brother, Boi Gangte; Aijuli is putting Forest Pick (as the firm is named) and Churachandpur, Manipur on the tea aficionado map.
Churachandpur, or Lamka as it is locally known, is no stranger to history. This is a town that saw military action in the second World War. The Indians in the British Army fought Indians of the INA assisting the advancing Japanese army. Lying about 60 km south west of the capital, Imphal, and the scars of battles past long forgotten, it is now the second largest town in the state.
It is not so much the history as the town’s geography that has been instrumental for Forest Pick. The hills surrounding the Churachandpur valley make for an ideal setting for the growth of quality tea. The forested hills shelter tea trees that are reportedly more than a hundred years old. Misty and cloudy with rains pouring down through the year, the climate is excellent for tea.
The first set of challenges confronting Aijuli and the Gangte family were twofold – how to recruit and incentivize tea pickers and how to process the picked leaves. Farmers in the region follow subsistence farming. Small landholdings dominate with the predominant crop being rice. Shifting cultivation – jhum – practiced on the hilly areas brings forests under stress.
Aijuli decided to guarantee the revenues for pickers to equate – they would earn an amount equivalent to what they would have had they continued with traditional farming. With this backstop in place, they were able to attract the right local pickers.
For ensuring quality processing, Boi was roped in to reach out to the experienced Assam and Darjeeling growers and processors. A kindly Parag Hatibarua agreed to help – an ITMA certified tea master and a tea taster & blender for close to 30years, Parag was an invaluable break through. The first year production was small by garden standards – 200 kgs but the great thing was that Forest Pick was up and away. No use of machines for processing meant that the teas were virtually handcrafted.
What the initial production gave the team was visibility. The high-quality teas were noticed far and away. With buyers coming in from multiple countries – including Europe and China – the team had a plethora of supporters.
With learning from their first year of operation and some buyers roping in additional expertise, this year their crop would be close to ten times their last year’s output – a respectable 2000 kg. The team feels that they have just started – the coming years will see them making a bigger impact. Keep your ears and taste buds tuned for Forest Pick – a distinctly different tea – direct from the wild hills to your cup.