Every tea-growing state has already seen its share of glory, and tea from Meghalaya is just starting to pick up pace. The advantage that Meghalaya has for its late start is that the tea quality becomes greater than any other tea of the same variety.
Like all Hill States, Meghalaya is the ideal place for tea plantation. The fertile soil, the hilly terrains, the climatic conditions, everything about the land favour tea plantation. However, very few dared to venture into this profession.
Tea plantation in Meghalaya goes back to the British era.
There have been attempts by the East India Company to set up tea plantations in the low lands. But due to resistance from the Khasi people, their ambition never saw the light of day.
During 1977-78 the Agriculture Department brought lowland tea samples from Assam and planted them in Experimental Centers at Umsning, Riangdo, and Tebronggre. They propagated the tea bush so that they can distribute them to farmers. The highland tea from Darjeeling was planted in Umsning.
Farmers were reluctant to take up the trade because it required a lot of care during the first few years. Very few entrepreneurs saw the opportunity in tea plantation.
Zizira team of explorers visited Bah John Marbaniang, who owns Sharawn Tea Estate in Sohryngkham and managed by his daughter Shariti Syiem. The tea estate was set up in 1991.
Bah John had worked with Warren Tea Group in upper Assam for 12 years. With a lot of experience in hand, he returned to Shillong to start his tea plantation.
As he was looking at his almost 3 acre land in Sohryngkham, he noticed that there were some tea plants in it. He discovered that it was the Chinese tea variety. Using the tea bush he discovered, he planted 100 tea plants. In 1992, he acquired some Darjeeling tea from Umsning and planted 600 plants. He had to wait for four years until he could harvest the leaves.
Bah John collected 1 Kg of tea leaves, hand rolled them and dried them in bamboo treys. He sent the tea to Kolkata for testing. The test result was excellent! His tea was considered the best highland tea they ever tested. He knew then that this was what he had to pursue.
The first few years he had to invest a lot to expand the tea plantation. He had to fight for what he believed in. He sold his car and got a little help from the government. But that was that.
He worked with 35 farmers encouraging them to plant the highland tea, but they all gave up eventually. They were not enterprising and had no patience. Hence they failed. There was one farmer who was enterprising and worked towards his dream, but personal/family issues got in the way.
Bah John says, Tea planting is labour intensive. It takes a lot of patience, hard work, and dedication and you could reap the harvest for 100-140 years depending on the location.
The collection time of the tea leaves also varies from location to location. The collection cycle for Bah John's tea is 6-7 days because that is the duration of the leaf buds to grow. Where as in Ribhoi it takes 3-4 days. The harvest season begins from the April till November.
The best variety of tea that he grows is the AV2. He discovered that the AV2 that grows in his estate is better than the one grown in Darjeeling. Bah John sells his tea at a premium price. Apart from selling his tea in the local market, he exports his tea to Australia.
A customer from Australia once made a surprising comment. He said that the AV2, that grows in Darjeeling and the one that grows in Sohryngkham taste very different. The customer typically doesn't like AV2 but he like Bah John's tea. This could be because of climate, soil or age of the plant.
There is a higher demand for green tea, and Bah John can only supply 75% of the tea from his estate.
One advantage of Sharawn is that the estate is small in comparison to other tea estate and the processing is done on the estate itself. This helps maintain the quality. Unlike big tea estates where, by the time the tea leaves reach the factory for processing, it has already oxidized, thus the quality drops.
Bah John is fanatic about the quality of his tea. He is a role model farmer. Bah John received an entrepreneurship award from IIM Shillong. And his daughter Sharity Syiem was awarded youngest entrepreneur by Rotary club Shillong.
After the success of Bah John's tea estate, the Agriculture Department was encouraged to set up a nursing farm in Upper Shillong. There have been a few other entrepreneurs who started growing tea in several parts of the state to date, and there is an expected increase.