Thursday, March 16, 2017

Steep Thoughts: Avantika Jalan of Mana Organics

Avantika Jalan

There are many tea companies that support sustainable organic farming, but there is often no explanation of what this really means. I recently had the chance to learn more about Mana Organics and taste their organic Assam tea (review will be posted tomorrow). I was curious to learn more about the company, and was able to correspond with Avantika, co-founder of the company, 'agri-specalist', and tea grower. Read on below to learn about Avantika, organic tea farming, and the challenges it poses in India.  

You are an organic agri-specialist. Can you explain what this is?
I define this as someone who is an expert in specifically organic agriculture – with an understanding of how soil nutrition, pest management and plant growth works under organic management. The method of organic input application, soil treatments, the application methods for the organic sprays and bio-controls, as well as the full understanding of how certification works, the regulations and how management of farms according to the certification standards.

How did you first get involved in organic tea farming?
I’ve always wanted to work with rural development in India. I started working with small farmers and small tea growers as they were interested in the soil and health benefits of organic farming.  For me personally, more than organic farming, I was interested in creating self-sustaining systems. In the context of Indian farmers, organic is a great way to do that, as most of the organic inputs can come from within the farm, and the farmers rely less on agricultural inputs bought from the market.
However, in order to be able to help these small growers and farmers, I had to first convince myself that organic management works. This is how I got into organic tea, as my family owns the tea estates. I got my training, and converted our family tea estate into organic in 2012. Now that I manage a 100 hectares of organic tea successfully, I feel a lot more confident in helping other small holders convert to organic, and create the sustainable systems within the farms.

It seems like sustainable organic farming is a term used frequently but isn’t really explained. Can you describe to our readers what a sustainable organic tea farm is?
A sustainable organic tea farm is a farming system where all forms of sustainability is kept in the forefront. This includes economic sustainability, environmental sustainability as well as social sustainability. At our estate, we ensure all our compost and other organic inputs is made of the on-farm waste, rather than buying ready-made compost. This ensures all farm waste to be used within the farm. Similarly, we have several social programs with our worker communities that ensure a healthy, happy community. And Economic sustainability ensures that we are economically viable. Our products are good high quality products that have a good market value, and we are able to sell our products to maintain our organic system.

What resources are needed to create a sustainable organic tea farm?
The main resources required to maintain a sustainable farm are:

-Access to livestock (for manures) either on-farm livestock, or livestock of people who work on the farm.
-Crop waste and means of collecting biomass from the farm (transport / trailers etc).
-Human resources for overseeing management and work.
-Knowledge and guidance on the organic practice.
-Willingness of farm owner to go the extra mile to ensure sustainability.

( these are based on our systems, other sustainable farms may operate differently, the main aspect of sustainability is to use local resources efficiently – so each farm has a customized approach to how they manage their systems).

Are organic farms more difficult to maintain than farms that use chemical pesticides?
This is a very relative question. If you are a new farm that has recently converted, then you have to pay attention to all the details, and it definitely is more work to maintain an organic farm. But overtime, once the organic systems are in place, the overall management is the same, if not less. Weed management is the only aspect where the organic management requires more resources than chemical management, as all weeding is done manually.

Certification is an added component that makes it more work for organic farms.
However, the difficulty level as far as maintaining a healthy farm – over time organic farms need less human interference as far as pest control and soil management is concerned.

What inspires you to be an innovator in organic farming?
I love seeing people’s reaction to organic farming. Once people see the changes on the ground, their commitment towards maintaining the natural balance to restore natural systems in a farm setting is what keeps me inspired.

What are some of the challenges facing organic tea farming in India?
Because ‘organic’ has a high market value, and the traditional tea industry is not well versed with the organic management systems, most tea farms adopt a very half-hearted approach to organic – which unfortunately does not give the same results. Often the “organic” system is blamed for reduction in yields and increased pest attacks etc.
The biggest challenge being, many tea estates are certified organic – but it is hard to gauge how authentic their organic products are, whether they are truly organic, or if its a sham.
This being the market environment – the availability of genuine organic tea is very low, and demand very high. This perpetuates the sense of “premium” that doesn’t allow for genuine organic practice to be followed as most producers want to call themselves organic, without putting in the effort required to become organic – to avail of the higher prices.

What do you think the future holds for tea farming in India?
I think tea in India is seeing very rapid changes. With the climatic conditions changing drastically in the last few years, and the labor becoming more expensive every year – the cost of production has been increasing steadily, while the price of tea has not changed at an equal rate.
A lot of large estates have been suffering from low production, forcing them to close down. I think in the near future, there will be an increase in small holders, with large estates diminishing.
More growers will move towards quality production, rather than quantity.

Do you have your own personal tea rituals?
I don’t know If I’d call it a ritual, but 3 cups of tea in a day is the minimum. One with breakfast, one after lunch, and green tea in the evening!
Thank you so much for your time, Avantika! To learn more about Mana Organics tea, you can visit their site here. Also, you can have a look at the video below to learn more about composting at Chota Tingrai:

Stay tuned tomorrow, I will post a review of their organic Assam tea.

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