S. Murali – Organic tea grower in Nilgiris

Please tell us about yourself
I purchased this 5-acre estate 11 years ago. When I had purchased this farm, the practice was to pluck the leaves and sell them to factories at rates as low as Rs.5 – Rs. 6 or a maximum of aRs.10/-. Even that was not a regular pattern. As a result, heaps of these leaves used to get wasted.
So, I set my thoughts around setting up a small factory. We acquired the necessary government permissions to start a micro factory without license. Soon I realised that in Coimbatore there was nobody who does these things at a small scale. There were only large scale players and I did get a lot of discouraging or negative responses.
My research got me to understand that we could acquire miniature equipment at reasonable prices from China. In the beginning I did not know anything and the learning was slow but steady.
I decided to go for an organic field. I had strong reasons for this. Initially we used to grow carrots in my estate, wherein we used organic fertilizers like manure etc. Once it so happened that even after giving away the produce to the factory and to field workers etc., there was about half a kilogram carrots, which I refrigerated. I totally forgot about these carrots.
About 1 and half months later, when I was cleaning my fridge out, I found that those carrots where still intact . The leaves had turned orange due to the lack of sunlight, but the carrots had survived. Organic carrots can be easily identified. They are generally smaller in size and quite dense. They are not very easy to bite into. I was surprised that these carrots didn’t rot. This is what motivated me to go ahead with organic cultivation.
I then contacted the Tamil Nadu organic department. They visited my field, inspected it, tested the soil, the water, the leaf samples, etc. and asked me to note down the type of manure we use, plucking method etc. on day to day basis. We were required to submit these notes once a week. That went on for 3 years before we finally got hold of our provisional certificate. This exercise taught us organic farming in depth.
After that we purchased the machine from China. We employed hand plucking, using the organic methods. Even if the colour is less, the taste would be good.
We then slowly ventured into retail market. Within 3 months itself we could introduce green tea, black tea, dip tea etc. to the market. We got in several grades of the product to the market. Earlier, we used to supply only to organic dealers. Slowly, we began supplying our produce to big retailers and distributors like Nilgiris.
Gradually, we started getting orders from all over Tamil Nadu, especially Chennai. We get orders from Amazon too. Even if the order quantity is small, it comes from various places, which makes me happy. Moreover, repeated orders brings in the satisfaction that people like our product. Gratefully, we have many repeat-order customers.
There are organic stores that do bulk purchase. There are people who purchase organic tea from us to improve the flavour and smell. There are people who purchase from us and export it. It was extremely motivating for us when people from far away countries came down to visit our farm. Currently, we export to 4 countries – US,UK, Finland and South Africa, regularly.

So the entire 5-acre farm is fully organic?
Yes, my farm is fully organic. In that belt across Ooty, we are the only people in production. Many people have enquired, but I think we are the only ones who have taken a miniature approach.
Many people have sold their estates. Payments are not prompt – it takes 7-10 days. If it rains and gets wet, the rate goes down. So it is not easy to survive. In small estates, family members get employed on the farm. But most people don’t pluck the leaves, they cut it off with knives due to which it takes another 2 months for new leaves to grow.
This is why we stick to hand plucking. With hand plucking, leaves would regrow till mid-November and if we are lucky, even till December. Plucking is not done for 3 months from January. We have planted almost 800 silver oak trees among our tea plantation. In the interim when we don’t pluck leaves, we cut down these trees for firewood, steaming and frying the tea leaves.

Is labor a problem?
If we are able to employ labour for the whole year and pay them every month, they will not leave us, they stay with us forever. We spray panchagavya every day, except during rainy seasons. The spraying is done one day before it is plucked. This enhances the taste of the tea. The benefits of panchagavya can be found online.
Cleaning and maintenance of the machines is done during the 3 months when we don’t have to pluck leaves.

Can the maintenance of these machines bought from China be done here?
There are places in Coimbatore where the maintenance can be done. Currently, there are small industries that can manufacture these machines for us, we need not purchase them from China. But, they cannot beat the prices at which China sells.
The machines purchased from China is cheaper even after we pay customs duty and transport charges. They may not be of great quality but it meets the purpose and is worth the amount we pay. The rollers are heavy and sturdy. The leaves need to be rolled and put for fermentation. After fermentation it is fried. After that it is dried and packed.

Have you received any help from the Government schemes?
The government has permitted small farmers to do production on a small scale. That itself is a big support. Otherwise, we would have had to take approach the central government to get a license for a small factory. This happened 7 years ago. Prior to that it was not easy to set up tea estates.

What else would you like to tell our readers?
I strongly recommend tea to be cultivated organically, because it is directly plucked, dried and packed. Chemicals, if added, remains on the surface of the leaf or in the powder. As tea leaf or dust is used directly for making tea and these chemicals enter our body.
If such chemicals are used for fruits or vegetables, they are at least washed a few times before they reach the end consumer. The buyer also washes it before the produce is cooked. So, most of the chemicals get washed away. But for tea this is not the case. Moreover, it saves a lot of time too. We do not have to invest time and money into spraying chemicals. Hence, tea should only be cultivated organically.
I am glad that there are people like you work towards spreading awareness about agriculture. Recently I happened to meet a few people who expressed their interest to get into agriculture, I was really happy to see that.
There is one thing that I want you to educate your readers about. In India, when vegetables like tomato is harvested, the produce obtained is so huge that sometimes a lot of it gets wasted. In countries like the US, when it is cultivated in excess quantities, they use some kind of processing technology to convert the excess tomato to powder form and store it for later use. This way it does not get wasted. If such techniques could be employed here too, wastage of crops can be prevented.

Contact –
Mr.S. Murali,
Marketing Manager
Neelamalai Organics,
Tel +91 9842293337
Email- neelamalaiorganics@gmail.com
http://www.neelamalaiorganics.com/