Just like Assam and Darjeeling, Meghalaya tea could soon become a brand as hundreds of farmers are gradually shifting to tea cultivation in the state because of suitable climate and fertile soil. Already about 2,000 hectares of land in Meghalaya is under tea cultivation, half of which are young bushes planted within the last five years, state Horticulture Department officials informed.
"We produce about 7 lakh tonne tea annually. Out of which about 75 per cent are grown without using chemicals. Tea production is increasing gradually every year. Our objective is to produce low volume but high quality tea," Agriculture Department Assistant Director Maqbool Lyngdoh Suiam told.
The state's topography allows for two distinct types of tea to be grown. In the lower reaches towards the Assam border and in the Garo Hills, high-quality Assam-style teas, strong in body and rich in flavour are produced. And in the central areas with their misty slopes ranging in altitude from 3,000 to 5,500 feet, produce-hill tea of real excellence, akin to those grown in Darjeeling or Sikkim.
Because of its superior quality, rich and fragrant aroma and powerful liquor, Meghalaya tea is finding customers as far as the UK, Europe and Australia. The agriculture department's own brand "Meg Tea" from Ri Bhoi district's Umsning is already a hit with tea lovers for its green and black orthodox tea, the official said. In Mawlyngot village, a co-operative of 20 farmers are producing green, black and white tea under the brand "Urlong Tea."
Seeing the financial success of the crop, seven nearby villages in the East Khasi Hills district have also decided to shift to tea cultivation, said Mawlyngot Tea Grower's Society's president D L Nongspung. Also encouraging the transition to tea is the horticulture department which is offering a one-time subsidy of Rs 10,000 per hectare to farmers and subsidising the cost of tea saplings and bio-pesticides besides training.
According to tea experts, younger tea plants like the one in Meghalaya produce higher yields and rich flavour than the older ones in West Bengal and Assam. Most of India's tea is produced in Assam and West Bengal. Meghalaya, on the other hand, is a late starter despite enjoying favourable climatic conditions for the crop. The first tea plantation began in the late 70s and now it is grown in all the eleven districts. Commercially, large areas of tea cultivation are located in the two districts of Ri Bhoi and West Garo Hills. Unlike Assam and West Bengal, Meghalaya doesn't has large tea estates as the land holdings are small and fragmented.
Faced with the shortage of trained labour to work in large tea gardens, the government is encouraging farmers to employ workers only from their family. Officials said their focus is on producing organic tea using traditional methods. They are also encouraging small and micro size tea processing units which can be run on a cooperative model.