Harvesting the iconic “two leaf and a bud” tea shoots by hand has been the norm in the tea industry for centuries. It requires nimble fingers and patient skill to select the shoots that are of just the right age, to ignore the immature shoots and discard the overmature leaves. Selective hand plucking – if done correctly – gives a high-quality tea in your cup; if rushed, the plucking of immature shoots reduces yield and including overmature leaves reduces cup quality. This much is simple.

Today, however, the tea industry faces many complex problems. It is a familiar face of global agriculture that trade encourages the producer to grow more, leading to oversupply, lower prices and reduced income.

Since the 1960s, technical advances in tea breeding, crop husbandry, nutrition and field management led to spectacular increases in productivity. Green leaf yield per acre increased three to five-fold, global tea production leapt from one million tonnes a year to over six million. Tea auction prices (in real terms, allowing for inflation) dropped, but producers thrived by shaving their margins, selling more volume at a lower unit price. These low wholesale tea prices and inexpensive containerized shipping enabled supermarkets to commoditize tea-bag black tea and promote it very successfully as a loss leader.

Fast forward 60 years and those commodity tea producers now face a different world: locked into low prices but with costs of production accelerating due primarily to the cost of hand plucking. Increasingly, to stay in business, tea producers are turning to low labor mechanical harvesting. No official figures are available, but experience suggests that at least 70 percent of all tea bushes globally are now harvested by motorized machine or with some mechanical aid – hand shears or a sickle – to speed up human fingers. This change has been rapid, and it stood at perhaps only five percent in 1980 (principally in Japan and the USSR), and it has been controversial. So, what have been the drivers?

Tea Producers: Mechanize or Face Bankruptcy?

As costs of production (COP) rise to match and often exceed auction prices, commodity tea producers face a stark reality with an inevitable choice: mechanize or face bankruptcy. In Sri Lanka during 2010 to 2019, the industry average cost of making tea was at or above the average auction price in four years out of 10. Productivity increases are no longer matching the soaring costs of production, slim margins are even slimmer, plucking labor has decamped from tea estates to higher pay and easier work in the cities.

To attract any workers remaining in rural areas, wages have to shadow city rates. Labor is typically the major cost for making a kilogram of commodity tea, and a large hand plucked tea estate in India, Sri Lanka or Africa requires 1,000 to 1,500 pluckers. The field inputs for growing the bushes, plus factory labor, electricity and fuel for processing, bulk packing, management costs, maintenance and depreciation all add up to just half of the total cost of that kilogram; the other 50 percent is the (ever increasing) cost of plucking labor.

Tea Plucking Man versus Machine
(Photo by: Mazzzur / BigStock.com)

In countries plucking to a higher standard, the labor cost is increased further – as high as 63 percent of the total COP in Sri Lanka (2011 data) and labor wages increased there by 82 percent during the decade 2010 to 2019.

Faced with lower prices, higher wage costs, a shortage of labor, and rampant absenteeism (routinely 30 percent of work days are lost in Darjeeling), tea producers have learned to pluck less selectively to a lower leaf standard, which allows a greater daily harvest per plucker (a win for the plucker who, being paid by the kilogram, receives better income), and less pluckers employed overall (a win for the producer).

In Sri Lanka over the past decade, the average of two pluckers employed per hectare (2.5 acres) has reduced to just one due to the easier plucking of coarser leaf. The loser is, of course, the commodity tea consumer who, while not seeing a significant retail price increase, is subjected to a gradual decline in cup quality. Despite this deskilling of selective plucking and downsizing of the labor force, it is still hard to find the required plucking labor – but the high-volume low-value model is a classic tiger-by-the-tail situation; thus, for producers the move to mechanization is inevitable.

The reality that reciprocating blade mechanized harvesting cannot match the leaf standard of selective hand plucking is irrelevant as the commodity trade has already factored lower quality into its model.

But Wait – Not All Is Lost for the Skilled Tea Plucker and for Tea Quality

While commodity tea can still find a buyer when its raw material is machine harvested down to the fourth leaf (well under 60 percent at a two leaf and a bud standard), the trending specialty tea sector still requires a high standard of green leaf – typically fine plucked to at least 85 percent as two leaves and a bud. Their higher selling prices, smaller volumes and shorter value chain allows specialty tea producers to reward skilled hand pluckers with significantly higher wages. A few specialty tea producers in traditional tea countries (Kenya, Malawi, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand) now routinely hand pluck to a 90 to 100 percent fine standard and justifiably sell their teas at prices from five to 50 times higher than commodity teas.

The large margins available for specialty tea has over past 15 years encouraged farmers and amateurs in many non-traditional tea countries to try their hand. Tea is now being grown in 18 U.S. states, and there are currently around 100 tea gardens emerging in Europe. The last few years have seen the founding of both the US League of Tea Growers and the European Tea Growers Association. However, while growing tea outside its subtropical home can produce some spectacular aroma and flavor, the inherently short growing season and low yields of these marginal regions, combined with the high labor wages required for selective hand plucking, stretch their commercial viability very thinly. Skilled pluckers in Africa and Asia will be paid from U.S. $2 to $5 per day. In Europe and The United States, the rates are from U.S. $12 to $15 per hour, which makes the leaf plucking labor cost alone from U.S. $86 to $107 per kilogram of finished tea. Making a marginal-country specialty tea company commercially viable is certainly no cinch.

The Williames’ Selective Tea Harvester

Reciprocating blade mechanical harvesters operate like hedge trimmers – all is cut that comes within reach of the blade. They are non-selective; they cut mature and immature shoots alike, and if not deftly positioned cut into and harvest the coarse under foliage, too. While they are adequate for commodity tea harvesting, and are surely keeping that sector afloat, they are incompatible with specialty tea production.

Fortunately, in the last few years, a novel design – the Williames’ Selective Tea Harvester – has become available. This machine has a clever patented system, whereby it rejects undersized shoots and selects mature shoots for harvest using a plucking (not a cutting) action. One Williames’ STH machine has been working in Mississippi for the past two seasons and has plucked green leaf for specialty tea to an 85 percent fine standard at 1/6th of the labor cost of local hand plucking and taking 1/5th of the time.

Until the long dreamt of robotic tea harvesters arrive, this innovative device will be the savior of specialty tea – and maybe will convince a few commodity tea producers to up their game, ditch their hedge trimmers, and return to selective harvesting.

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Nigel Melican is owner and managing director, technical services, at Teacraft Ltd. He’s also the 2018 recipient of the prestigious John Harney Lifetime Achievement Award from the World Tea Conference + Expo. Teacraft Ltd. provides comprehensive service to all sectors of the tea industry, including equipment and machinery supply, beverage consultancy, training and research and development. Melican has more than 30 years of experience in the tea industry, and he’s assisted clients in 26 countries – from green tea in Australia to antioxidants in Zimbabwe. His particular interest is in planting tea in non-traditional countries, assisting small farmers with techniques for handmade tea production and marketing, and encouraging the use of sustainable tea growing and manufacturing methods. To learn more, visit Teacraft.com.