Producer spotlight #01: Potong Tea Garden

Quality checking of tea leaves at the Potong Tea Garden. Photograph by Equal Exchange Resource Centre.

Producer spotlight #01: Potong Tea Garden

Saturday 21 May is this year’s International Tea Day, a UN-designated celebration of tea and the vital role it plays in livelihoods and poverty reduction, social empowerment and sustainable agriculture around the world.

To mark the occasion, we’re shining a light on some of the extraordinary producers, farmers and cooperatives we work with, who continue to fly the flag for small-scale tea production, workers’ rights and agroecological farming – providing a real alternative to the ecologically-damaging monocultures, poor working conditions and low-quality product that many of the corporate tea estates offer.

First up, it’s the Potong Tea Garden in Darjeeling, India, who produce Canton Darjeeling. Nestled deep in the Himalayan foothills, the estate was first established as a colonial plantation over a hundred years ago. Since then, the garden was mismanaged and abandoned repeatedly by a string of irresponsible owners – causing extreme hardship for its workers and their families, for whom the garden was their only source of livelihood. Malnutrition and illness was common, and schools were closed due to lack of resources.

Tea Picker at Potong Gardens in India

Tea picker at the Potong Tea Garden, India.
Photograph by Small Farmers Big Change.

In 2005, Potong Tea Garden was auctioned off to another tea company and yet again, the venture was a failure. Faced with the prospect of another owner and more mismanagement, a group of Potong workers decided to try and manage the estate themselves. They approached the Tea Promoters of India for support – a pioneering organisation committed to bringing environmental and social reform to the tea industry – and an agreement was made. The Potong Tea Garden is now majority-owned by its workers, in partnership with the superb Singell Tea Estate and Tea Promoters of India. The cooperative is also organic and Fairtrade certified – and the living and working conditions on the estate exemplary. 

It hasn’t been an easy process. The soil had been damaged by poor agricultural practices in the past and the changing climate of the region made the transition to organic particularly difficult. Potong farmers have been painstakingly restoring good soil health through worm composting and “Cow Pat Pit” composting (a compost made from cow manure, crushed egg shell and basalt dust). They’ve also been carefully introducing and reintroducing native and non-native plants such as legumes, grasses and other green crops to improve fertility, reduce erosion, maintain moisture and manage pests – as well as planting trees to revive natural water sources in the area. It’s sustainability at its very best, environmental health, social equity and economic viability all working in harmony with each other. 

If this new, more democratic model is successful, it could contribute to the transformation we so desperately need in the tea industry. And what does Potong tea taste like? Their Darjeeling is sensational. Sweet and floral, with notes of dried fruit, roses and toasted bread. You can buy it here.

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