Shade, food, and an egg’s lost luggage!


By Connie Clark and Patrick Sayers
University of Southampton

We are Connie and Patrick, two MSc students studying Applied GIS and Remote Sensing at the University of Southampton. Our average day is spent looking at satellite images of the world on computers. In many of our assignments we often find ourselves wishing we could visit these places to see what they are really like, and to provide real-world context to problems that we are trying to solve. Sometime in the middle of our coursework-strewn semester, such a unique and exciting opportunity arose to fulfil this dream (as part of a UKIERI project) and we jumped at the chance to conduct research in Assam as part of our masters dissertation projects.

Patrick and Connie

Patrick and Connie

Fast-forward a month or two and this opportunity to visit Assam started to seemed somewhat daunting. Arriving into Jorhat, after 3 flights, with no sleep in 36 hours, having also lost Connie’s luggage, it was fair to say that we were a little unenthusiastic about what was to follow. Upon arriving in India we found ourselves in quite a state of ‘culture-shock’. Our first experience of India was the roads, which seemed like complete chaos, with countless near-misses with other road users and the many animals that seem entirely unconcerned by the streams of traffic. However, once we arrived at the Tocklai Tea Research Institute (TTRI), the whole experience became a lot more relaxed and enjoyable. We were made to feel incredibly welcome by everyone there and they provided an immense amount of support for our field research. We were straight out into the field on our first full day there, collecting data on our two very different projects…

Why does lowland tea need shade trees?
Unlike some other parts of the world, the tea plantations in Assam are in the lowlands, and because of this, shade trees are essential to protect the growing tea from the sun and produce a favourable microclimate. Yet despite their importance, I [Connie] noticed that few remote sensing studies (using satellite images) have looked into shade trees – most consider only how to detect tea, with some even complaining about the shade trees getting in the way. So my project focuses on these misunderstood trees, considering whether the density of shade trees in an area can be estimated using low resolution satellite imagery that is freely-available to everyone. I plan to use high resolution imagery to train a classification, and in the field I wanted to collect data on the shade trees to act as a form of accuracy assessment.

The vast expanse of tea in one of the plantations we visited

The vast expanse of tea in one of the plantations we visited, complete with shade tree canopy

To do this required collecting GPS locations of the shade trees, which seems easy enough in theory. Yet having never been to a tea plantation, I didn’t quite know what to expect; and on the morning of our first day in the field, I soon realised that the field work I had planned, from the comfort of my home in Southampton, was impossible. There were too many trees in a vast area of tea to collect data on all of them, and most of the area was inaccessible to me as the tea is too closely planted (and too thorny) to move between. So I had to quickly consider alternative sampling strategies, and decided it would be best to collect the locations all trees along the edges of a section (one part of a plantation), and some of the rows in the middle where it was possible to walk along narrow tracks. In each of the three plantations visited, I collected data in sections with different densities of shade tree to ensure I captured data across a range of conditions. Now back in Southampton, all that’s left is to get some cloud-free imagery (which might be a challenge over Assam!) and get properly stuck into my project, to see whether it is actually possible to find shade trees from space.

Tea drinking tastes nice but what do workers eat?
In many of Assam’s tea estates, the practice of inter-cropping takes place, where other crops are grown alongside the primary crop of tea. In particular, rice paddies are often grown in the drainage areas between the stands of tea by plantation workers, and are an important source of food. Whilst regulations are set for the application of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, none exist for the growing of rice paddies as these are non-commercial crops. This is potentially an issue as the leaching of the chemicals from the tea stands can potentially enter the areas used to grow rice. My research is attempting to investigate whether leaching is taking place and calculate the amount of land that could be used for inter-cropping to provide adequate food sustenance for tea workers’ livelihoods.

Paddy field inter-cropping

Paddy field inter-cropping

During our trip I [Patrick] was able to visit three separate tea estates and collect soil samples as well as locational information about land cover. Compared to the previous places I have completed fieldwork (spectacular mountain ranges, glaciers and of course the bog-filled New Forest), the tea estates were a stark contrast. I was overwhelmed by their scale, with a sea of lush green leaves in every direction. What appears a perfectly neat and continuous surface of green conceals an intricate network of surprisingly deep drainage ditches that eventually widen into vast channels. Aside from the weather and the fairly rugged terrain, fieldwork was actually easier than any other environment I have worked in due to the fantastic support given to me. Estate managers showed keen interest in our projects and were very helpful in suggesting good locations to collect samples. Data collection was made much easier due to the assistance of plantation workers in collecting soil samples, whilst myself and Debojit (TTRI technician) recorded GPS locations and catalogued soil samples. In total we collected 270 samples in all weathers, ranging from searing heat to torrential downpours (it wouldn’t be a geography field trip without rain!). Back in the TTRI lab, I begun the slow and somewhat painstaking process of sorting, labelling and drying the samples collected in the field. It was at this point that 270 samples didn’t seem like the best idea! However, I persevered, and I’m looking forward to analysing the results to see what can be determined, in conjunction with processing high resolution satellite imagery to determine potential inter-cropping areas.

Experiencing Assamese Culture
Our reasons for wanting to visit Assam extended beyond simply academic interest, and the experience proved incredibly fulfilling. The flora and fauna is unique compared to anywhere else we have visited and we were able to see monkeys, giant snails and water buffalo during our visit. One of the most unforgettable experiences was seeing working elephants in Kaziranga National Park being being ‘driven’ along the road by children who were mounted on their backs. Their size and the speed they moved were amazing. Aside from the characteristic tea plantations of the landscape, another iconic part of Assam we couldn’t miss was the mighty Brahmaputra river. With parts of the river 10km wide, this is something that can only be appreciated in situ.


Elephants in Kaziranga National Park

Our exposure to Assamese culture extended into the diverse cuisine. Portion sizes in India are unrealistically large and ensured that we were continually full. One of our particular favourites was Gulab Jamun – a sweet which Connie compared to a mini sticky toffee pudding. On a side note about food, we were informed by one of the ladies in the institute that in the local Assamese language, Connie means ‘egg’. We found this hilarious, especially as Connie doesn’t like eggs, or tea for that matter. But no visit to Assam would be complete without sampling the excellent tea. A truly unique experience was the opportunity to join in the daily tea-tasting in one of the tea estates, with tea that was freshly processed from the factory just hours before. This was a dream come true for Patrick who is an avid tea-drinker, and all round tea fan. Tea-tasting is taken just as seriously as wine-tasting in vineyards, and has as many technical terms to describe each and every aspect. It is a moment of great importance for the tea estates, as it determines the guide price that each variety will be set at at auction. It turns out that tea-tasting is very difficult and best left to those in the know.

Tasting tea fresh from the fields

Tasting tea fresh from the fields

Our initial reasons for coming was both for collecting important data for our MSc research projects, but also to experience Assamese culture and working in an entirely new setting. Whilst we were able to fulfil and exceed these expectations, the main thing we have taken from our experiences has come from the diverse range of people we have met. Everyone at Tocklai was extremely welcoming and hospitable, and it is for this reason that we both had such a memorable trip.  Thank you to the University of Southampton, TTRI and UKIERI for providing us with such a fantastic opportunity.

Us with the project team in the grounds of TTRI. Left to right: Sukanya, Connie, Patrick, Debojit and Niladri

Us with the project team in the grounds of TTRI. Left to right: Sukanya, Connie, Patrick, Debojit and Niladri

Dreamlining my way to the UK on my first trip abroad


By Sukanya Saikia
Tocklai Tea Research Institute

Being from Assam, I have seen tea gardens from my childhood when I used to visit my paternal house. I would be astonished by the scenic beauty of the tea growing regions; lush green in all directions. I used to be in awe that such huge estates could be managed so well. Tea is such an extremely important commodity for trade in India. Recently (a few months back), while I visited the tea-growing region of Upper Assam, I saw the saddening truth of the impact of climate change on tea. Although I am aware of climate change, I did not notice its impacts so closely until then. It sparked my interest in the subject; I felt a sense of duty towards the region where I have been born and brought up. So, when I came across a newspaper advertisement regarding a position of a research fellow at the Tocklai Tea Research Institute, a century old institute dedicated to R&D in tea, I applied for the position, got through the screening process and here I am!

A strong attack of looper (caterpillars) which eat the tea crop; due to reduced rainfall their presence has increased

A strong attack of looper (caterpillars) which eat the tea crop; due to reduced rainfall their presence has increased

I am Sukanya, a newly appointed research fellow and a proud member of our energetic and amazing research team. The brilliant collaborative project I get to work on is being undertaken jointly between the Tea Research Association and the University of Southampton (funded by UKIERI). I consider myself highly honoured to be able to work with such an eminent group of people. Since starting my position in May this year, I’ve had fantastic exposure to an elite group of people working on climate change and many other diverse fields, and as part of the project I get to exchange knowledge through visiting the UK. 26th July was the day of my first trip abroad. Of course, being my first international trip, it helped in adding to the excitement! On my journey I was accompanied by the Indian project coordinator, Dr. Niladri Gupta. He’s an excellent guide and knows so many facts about so many places! Before visiting a foreign land, I was a bit apprehensive for a few reasons: I was conscious of the accent difference between the two countries; I was wondering whether they would be welcoming enough; whether they would understand me; whether I would be able to understand them; would they be patient listeners. These fears dissolved instantly when I visited the University of Southampton and met the new people.

Ellie gave me a warm welcome at the University and Niladri showed me around the University campus. I was awestruck to see the huge library and all its facilities. Almost each and every leading journal is accessible; which is a big constraint in most of the R&D institutes in India. This is really helpful for the students and all the researchers. I have realised that life in UK is highly technical; yet very simple. Back in India, life still is more complex, even with tremendous manpower. I’m not saying that India is lacking in opportunities; India is full of doors waiting to be opened with various directions waiting to be explored. I feel it’s the attitude of certain individuals which need to be changed. The work culture in UK is very different – time is not a factor for them; they are dedicated to work. I respect their work culture. I feel sometimes it becomes a bit difficult here to achieve such a productive work ethic.

It was pleasantly warm when I visited the UK which made a nice break from the stifling humidity of Assam where it's currently monsoon season. Outside the Geography building, University of Southampton.

It was pleasantly warm when I visited the UK which made a nice break from the stifling humidity of Assam where it’s currently monsoon season. Outside the Geography building, University of Southampton.

Anyway, the UK research team provided an enthusiastic welcome and a thoroughly engaging environment for me to share their knowledge and experience. During our meetings we discussed climate change issues and how we can identify potential solutions to mitigate its impact on tea production and assist the transition of the tea gardens to adopt climate-smart agriculture. It was a highly productive two weeks and I learnt a great deal. Apart from this project, other prospects of future work were also discussed. It’s superb to see how minds work and come up with such brilliant ideas. How these ideas could be executed and transformed to reality is just a few steps away. After all, small steps lead to big milestones!

Visiting a tea shop in Winchester. They were selling 2nd flush Harmutty tea from Assam

Visiting a tea shop in Winchester. They were selling 2nd flush Harmutty tea from Assam

Besides the enlightenment of knowledge, I saw some English countryside as well as historic and beautiful places during my stay; Winchester, wild horses in New Forest, the Red Arrows on the Isle of Wight, cruise liners at Southampton docks, and many sites around the historic city of Southampton and some of London during the weekends. Even when we visited these places the subject of tea and climate still managed to creep in; we stopped in a Whittard tea shop in Winchester and interacted with the shop owner about her views on the tea trade; we reflected upon the warm weather the UK was currently experiencing and the science behind why this might be; we discussed about the newly developed English tea estate at Tregothnan in Cornwall. This was all impromptu relative to the situation and quite fun!

Me with the two project PIs next to the beautiful River Itchen in Winchester

Me with the two project PIs next to the beautiful River Itchen (a chalk stream) in Winchester

Exchange programs such as UKIERI provide much essential opportunities to enhance and broaden the thinking, understanding and seeing the world with different perspectives. This two-week trip has been a life-changing experience for me. Thanks a lot to Ellie, John, Jenny, Andy, Emma, Pete and Niladri for showing me around this intoxicatingly beautiful country of the United Kingdom; and thank you so much for the marvellous food which my taste buds got to experience. For now, we are progressing with the research and having frequent discussions over Skype, but I cannot wait to return next year to see everyone again, meet new people, carry on with our excellent work and come up with many new ideas for how science can help my home state of Assam cope with the climate impacts of the future.

The next steps… As part of my position as a research fellow, I have the opportunity to enhance my skills through undertaking training. I have already completed an online course on An Introduction to the Science of Climate and Climate Change conducted by the University of Oxford, Met Office Hadley Centre and Natural Environment Research Council in UK. Next, I am preparing to undergo training in MATLAB which will further my skills in coding to enhance the development of models to analyse climate and tea yield data.