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

EXCHANGE VISIT #5: POSTGRADS FIRST EXPERIENCE OF LIFE IN INDIA

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.

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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

A future for UK tea?

INTEREST PIECE: ENGLISH TEA V ASSAM TEA

by Ellie Biggs
University of Southampton

“There is no trouble so great or grave that cannot be much diminished by a nice cup of tea.”

The initial stages of our collaborative research venture have sparked great interest for me in tea to a level purely beyond that of drinking it! Our new research project is investigating climate impacts on tea production in Assam, India. From this I’ve developed a side interest in the UK tea industry; an interest I regard as suitably justified given that we consume so much of the stuff. In fact, I have learned since commencing the project that tea is actually grown in the UK, which is a highly exciting prospect. Currently only one tea estate produces tea in England and that is the Tregothnan plantation in Cornwall. According to their website, “Tregothnan is one of the very best tea regions in the world. Its cool climate and inimitable uniqueness is essential for the best of teas.” So how does English grown tea differ to that grown in Assam?

Growing differences: Cornwall V Assam
Acidic soils and a damp environment provide ideal tea-growing conditions at Tregothnan. The Camellia sinensis tea bush grows especially well in the damp and temperate Cornish valleys. In comparison, Assam is also especially damp given the monsoon rains rejuvenates the landscape every summer. Another interesting fact I’ve learned is that because of an early sunrise, Assam’s tea gardens follow local time, known as ‘Tea Garden Time’ or Bagantime, which is an hour ahead of Indian Standard Time!

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Tea is grown in Assam during the summer season and in contrast to the UK, India has a much warmer and more humid climate during these months. However, the ambient temperature range for growing tea is approximately 13 – 30°C, which both Cornwall and Assam fall within the majority of the growing season. In fact, anything too hot and the tea leaves burn in the heat. Shade trees are often required in Assam to protect the bushes from direct sunlight. During the winter the tea bushes are dormant in both locations due to low temperatures and reduced daylight hours. There are many environmental factors which are important for optimal tea growth, such as temperature, moisture, soil depth and pH, and such conditions have both similarities and variation between Assam and England. Therefore, I wondered – do the growing conditions alter the taste?

The taste test
Clearly a tea taste test was in order to determine if nurturing tea plants in different geographical localities actually transfers a change in flavour through to the palette. I acquired some pure Assam loose black leaf tea from the Tocklai tea plantation and some classic black leaf tea bags from Tregothnan. Now, the black tea from Tregothnan is slightly misleading, as although marketed as “the tea grown in England” the bagged product is actually a blend of English tea with “finest Assam”, as stated on the front of their merchandise (if I ever acquire any pure English loose leaf tea I will re-do this taste test).

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Brewing the tea, I actually found the English tea to produce a darker brew. To me, the Assam tea tasted a little more bitter. There were certainly distinctive differences in the actual taste, but not being a qualified tea taster I’ve struggled to elaborate using the correct descriptive language. There are some top tips here though if you’re that way inclined. I tried both with and without milk and actually found both varieties of the tea very pleasant to drink black. Clearly both are winning brews and I’d recommend either, but I did particularly like the English blend taste. Views from others in a taste test stated the English variety to be “smooth and surprisingly strong”, “tastes quite powerful” and has “the nuttiness of a top Assam.” So if English grown tea is actually as good as Assamese tea for consumers, does the India to UK export industry have something to worry about?


Why grow tea in the UK?

In short, probably not any time soon. Tea is a lucrative business, we love a good cuppa, and the UK imports around £250 million worth of tea each year. English tea is not currently produced on a scale to rival Indian leaves, and probably never will be due to space issues. Tregothnan tea is presently marketed as a luxury brand but perhaps there is scope to plant further tea estates in the UK and cultivate more leaves on our home soil. In addition to a superb taste, a reason why this could be favoured by the UK community is largely environmental. Recent environmental concerns regarding more sustainable food production has led many consumers to think more closely about where the produce they are purchasing is being sourced. The slow food movement has gained traction over the last decade and people are beginning to care about reducing their environmental footprint. Checking your fruit and veg in the supermarket for where it originates from is one way to achieve this. Sourcing food locally and buying what is in season reduces an individual’s collective food miles; something the environmentally conscious are keen to achieve. I know I consistently check the origin of fresh produce and always try to buy British.

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So, by growing British and buying local, products can potentially be produced more sustainably and your environmental footprint is reduced. Perhaps this would be good enough reason to grow more of our nation’s favourite beverage on our home soil, as well as it tasting as good as our overseas tea rivals! However, tea is a way of life for many families in India and a decline in production could potentially be detrimental to their livelihoods; the international tea trade remains a significant factor in providing income for the people of Assam, but it’s good to know we can successfully cultivate tasty tea in England should productivity abroad ever decline.

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We are hoping to visit Tregothnan next summer to tour the tea estate in person and compare characteristics of tea bush cultivation between Assam and Cornwall. Another blog post will appear then, and perhaps we’ll get our hands on some non-blended pure English loose leaf tea to try.