Since 2010 Ethical Tea Partnership and the Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative have been working together on a multi-stakeholder project to help 1,000 Indonesian smallholder farmers to make a sustainable living from tea.

Project team inspecting tea bushesPresented with a range of problems (small plots, remote locations, limited knowledge of good agricultural practice and a lack of finance for input materials) that can adversely affect leaf quality, they’re also less aware of the increasingly high social and environmental standards that western markets demand. Without support to deal with these challenges, smallholders could become marginalised from international supply chains.

Based on these considerations, the project aims to instil better farming practices through training and access to micro-finance for input costs (e.g. fertiliser), as well helping them to meet international standards and with management issues.

Views of IndonesiaGood practice tea farming

I recently visited the smallholder cooperative in the sub-district of Pengalengan with my colleague Dushy Perera from Sri Lanka. Having worked as an Estate Manager in both Indonesia and Sri Lanka Dushy is well placed to offer advice on bush management. The 6 hour drive to the smallholders’ village over winding rocky roads took us past breath taking scenery of pine forest, eucalyptus trees, ferns and rainforest. We also travelled past numerous vegetable farms and from afar we also saw smoke pollution from slash and burn activity -  a practice that’s not encouraged because of the associated environmental problems.

The main reason for the visit was to check on a ¼ hectare demonstration plot (a learning ground for the smallholder farmers), and to share best practice with the cooperative members and a local factory manager. Pak Odih, a researcher from the  Gambung Research Institute of Tea and Chinchona, and a farmer himself, has been advising the plot owner on good bush management in an attempt to increase productivity.

Tea bush nurseryPak Odih has a wealth of expertise and I admire his sincere commitment to the smallholder farmers. In the last 4 months he’s helped to turn an unhealthy plot into a stand of strong tea bushes that should withstand both drought and monsoon conditions productively. The visit was also an opportunity for Dushy to explain the use of micro-nutrients such as zinc and magnesium sulphate. He also emphasised the benefit of not harvesting (plucking) two months to pruning. This allows tea bushes to build up starch reserves which enables a quicker recovery and improves their long-term productivity.

We also attended a cooperative meeting to discuss the basic principles of how the cooperative will function including the support from Rabobank, but more about that in my next post. Also look out for Dushy’s blog about the tea bush nursery project that will supply one of the smallholder groups with cuttings for planting.