Tea Time: A Visit to a Sustainable Tea Plantation

I've just arrived back in Canada from a trip to Kericho, Kenya to see the Lipton Tea plantation. They are working in partnership with the Rainforest Alliance to have all of their tea plantations certified sustainable by the year 2015. This is a massive undertaking, and Kericho is essentially the model plantation. I'll be doing a series of posts about the Kericho plantation and with a wealth of information to impart, I thought I would start with the obvious, the tea itself.When you move around the plantation, there are tea plants as far as the eye can see. Left on their own the Camellia Sinensis would grow to a height of 10 metres or more. The trees are cropped to about 3 feet and are very densely packed together and form what is essentially a table top. Just gazing over the field you wonder how the pluckers move between them, but they really are planted in rows and you just push along and the branches part to allow you to move through them. The heavy foliage at the top of the bush serves to shade the ground, allowing it to retain moisture despite the blazing sun.

tea time tea breeding photoKelly Rossiter/CC BY 2.0

There is no irrigation anywhere on the Lipton plantation, they rely solely on rainfall to water the plants. They also don't use any pesticides at all, so the effectiveness of their plants comes from the brilliance of their breeding programme. They breed for a superior yield, quality of the tea leaves, drought tolerance and pest resistance. Other than 50 grams of fertilizer used when the tree is first planted, nothing is added to or sprayed onto the plants, and nothing is removed from the soil. It is a perfect cycle of sustainable growth.

tea time tea flowers photoKelly Rossiter/CC BY 2.0

Tea production is a long-term proposition. Planning for the future is crucial and it is well understood that decisions taken today have major ramifications 12 - 15 years down the road. The tea breeding programme is ongoing with each individual programme lasting for 12 years, and they are staggered so that the tea varieties are continually being changed to broaden the genetic base.

tea time tea pollen photoKelly Rossiter/CC BY 2.0

We took a trip to the nursery where the tea breeding is done. Of course, in order to get the seeds the trees are allowed to mature, so the nursery is an beautiful oasis of shade and coolness, rather than being in the open sun in the centre of a tea field. There is no laboratory manipulation here. The tea is pollinated by hand, as it has been done for centuries. Then as the seeds mature, colourful little cloth bags that you can see in the photo above are sewn over them to keep them from falling to the ground prematurely. Each colour represents the date that they are bagged. When the seeds are ready they are germinated and the long wait begins. It takes 12 months for the plant to grow large enough to start propagating it. Small branches called whips are removed from the sapling and grafted by hand onto a host plant. The process is repeated until you have a number of plants with the same genetic material.

Once the plants mature, they are planted as infill to replace trees which have died, or they may be planted in a larger group, taking their place among the other tea varieties, some of which date back some 80 years to the first planting on the original plantation.

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