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Successful tea smallholder Pak Wawan, right, with growers Cahyn, far left, and Dodo.
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Pak Wawan with his wife Teuis and daughter Dela, 7. His oldest son studies chemistry at the university in Bandung, a second son is in junior high school.
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Wawan cultivates a small portion of the14,000 acres that supplies the PT Kabepe Chakra bought leaf factory in Ciwidey managed by Yana Rudiana.
Ciwidey, West Java
National Hwy. 3 rises gradually from the depths of the Bandung basin, once the bottom of prehistoric Lake Bandung that covered the area in Paleolithic times. The vehicle creeps through traffic jams and the grey smog- filled air of Indonesia’s third largest city, then enter a zone of vivid green paddy fields, fruit orchards, and vegetable gardens. The villages of Kopo, Soreong, Ciwidey, and Gambung are stepping stones to Indonesia’s plantations. Here, at 2,500 feet, in an area rich in volcanic soil, the Dutch established tea bushes in centuries past.
Nugroho Koesnohadi, business development manager at KBP Chakra, evokes the name of a well-known Dutchman in these parts, Dr. R.E. Kerkhoven, who introduced Camellia Assamica from Sri Lanka to Gambung, West Java, in 1877. This variety eventually replaced much of the C. sinensis throughout Indonesia.
Two and a half hours from Bandung, we arrive at a meeting point on a dirt track in the middle of tea fields of brilliant green. We are waiting for Pak Wawan, senior supervisor of the Kelompok Tani Teh, Neglasari or Tea Farmers’ Cooperative. There are 34 members farming 84 acres. In time 11 men of all sizes and shapes, young and old, arrive on motorcycles or on foot. They are a friendly, curious group, anxious to meet a reporter.
I want to learn what makes the tea smallholder different from estate farmers; they respond openly, laugh self-consciously, demurely. We eat box lunches crammed with Sundanese specialties. The mood is festive. Afterwards, they are happy to tell the tea smallholder story.
Indonesia’s tea smallholders are the backbone of its tea industry, producing half of the country’s tea. The most productive tea-growing region is Pengalengan, where we are standing.
Cultivation is difficult on extremely small gardens of less than one hectare (2.5 acres). There are no irrigation systems. Plants are watered and weeded by hand. The tea is vulnerable to drought and weather/ climate anomalies. Although family labor is sometimes available, additional labor can be difficult to find. Much of the root stock in West Java is more than 50 years old and in need of replanting and in-filling. Uprooting bushes by machine is costly and cannot be self- financed. It takes several years for new plants to produce suitable tea leaves. Without restoration and replanting, production suffers greatly…and it is.
Demand for tea is growing, but not due to local consumption. There are global macroeconomic trends beyond the ken of the tea farmer, beyond the district, beyond the nation’s borders. It is difficult to meet new quality standards, higher volume requirements, adopt best agricultural practices, follow restrictions on chemical use, and other requirements smallholders have not previously had to face. Individual smallholders have little chance surviving alone. They must seek cooperation with neighbors, public-private partnerships, unions, and smallholder groups, scaling up, not only for the sake of solidarity, but to access information, knowledge, know how, credit, agricultural inputs, processing facilities, and markets which are located on the other side of the planet. The smallholder dairy farmers, for which the region is also famous, have also made the discovery.
Tea plucking had been completed in the morning, so our team retired to Wawan’s modest home in a nearby village. Considering the dress and material acquisitions seen in the tiny village, located several kilometers from the tea fields, one realizes these industrious men and women are neither very prosperous nor living close to the poverty line. There were big screen TV’s, fridges, cell phones, indoor plumbing, kitchens, and ensuite bathrooms in homes. Many farmers owned motorcycles; a few drove old cars or trucks.
Wawan is proud that his 21-year old son studies chemistry at university in Bandung, and he expected his daughter, Dela, and a second son, in junior high school, to do likewise. His wife, Teuis, cares for the children at home. It is unlikely any of his offspring will follow them into tea.
The family survives on income from his one hectare tea garden, which his father established in 1978. The garden produces 5,000 kilos of assamica that he sells for $4,300 annually.
Membership in the cooperative gives farmers access to fertilizer subsidies, access to formal train- ing in best farming practices, and field training by extension agents. Wawan arranges the collection of green tea leaf from members and transports the harvest to a bought-leaf factory (BLF) with which the group has a contract. From that point in the value chain, the farmers relinquish financial inter- est in the product. These smallholders do not own a factory, so their relationship with factory own- er PT Kabepe Chakra is a crucial asset, without which they would not be able to dispose profitably of their tea. The factory makes Chinese- and Japanese-style teas, buying leaves and also offering technical support, no-interest loans and – most important – economic security through periods of global tea price fluctuation and uncertainty.
Chakra contracts with groups of smallholders for each of its 15 company-owned factories. Farm- er farmer groups are comprised of 45 farmers.
Chakra pays for third party certification for tea exported to Europe, the US, Australia, Russia, the Middle East, and Pakistan. The remaining 15% is sold to local companies to make bottled tea.
Selling to the factory benefits smallholders as it requires no capital investment and gives them access to a wide range of facilities, both physical and financial. Farmers in these groups also sell to middlemen or leaf agents and to large tea estates with their own factories. Selling green leaf to smallholders at collectively-owned factories is perhaps the ideal paradigm.
Wawan points out that government regulations permit smallholder unions to build and operate state-of-the-art factories that are capable of processing 8 tons of green tea per day or 2 tons of made tea. “There is no way a small tea farmer can survive without the goodies that collective membership gives him access to,” said Wawan. He explained that government assistance is simply not available to individual smallholders and due to “uneconomic scale,” banks won’t consider them for credit. The tea smallholder must organize to survive, he said.
Coming back down to practical matters, Wawan said for each kilo of green leaf harvested and shipped to the factory, a grower is obliged to pay an “assessment” of IDR 100 (>USD 0.01). The money is kept in a savings account to purchase fertilizer and other farm inputs. Another two tenths of a penny is invested in healthcare. Unlike most tea smallholders, Wawan’s family members do not work on the farm, so during plucking season, he hires up to 20 pluckers who earn IDR 50/ per kg. for plucked leaf. This works out to $3 per day per plucker. For 20 pluckers, that’s $60 per day. Smallholders typically pluck their garden ev- ery two weeks, year round.
The local factory pays IDR 2,500 or $0.22 per kg. for assamica leaf and $0.35 per kilo for China bush. Farm group members pay $8.25 per harvest cycle to fund the senior supervisor and supervisor’s position.
Farmers in Wawan’s group also own milk cows and grow vegetables for the market and home. He nets $595 a month for all his pursuits or $7,150 a year, much higher than the $2,675 national average.
The afternoon drew to a close with a delicious cup of Wawan’s green tea, a light sencha, and snacks. We expressed our genuine appreciation for the family’s candor and charm, as well as, typical Indonesian politeness and goodwill, with the feeling that growing tea as a smallholder is doing tea the hard way. However, in contrast to larger estates, slow tea appears less stressful and creates fewer complications for growers. There is also the satisfaction that comes with working close to nature and far from the maddening crowd.