Like all hill states, Meghalaya is also a region that has favorable climatic and soil condition for tea plantation.
The first tea nursery was introduced in the late 70s, where the government brought samples from Assam and planted them in Ri Bhoi and two other locations. There were very few takers then. With a little help and support from the government, a few farm owners and entrepreneurs started investing in tea.
Zizira team of explorers visited Bah Freeman, an entrepreneurial tea farmer from Umran, Ri Bhoi district.
Bah Freeman grew up in a family of poor farmers who cultivated betel leaves. Initially, he was not interested in farming, so, he took up cow herding as a livelihood and earned Rs. 40 per year in the early 60s. He came to realize that he will not be able to sustain his family by cow herding. So, in the late 60s, he ventured out into agriculture. He acquired 10 acres of land from his little savings because he knows that agriculture will help him and his family in the long run. He cultivates ginger, turmeric, pineapple, areca nut, pepper, cardamom as well as paddy. His primary produce is betel leaves as it brought him higher income. A bunch of betel leaves fetched him around Rs. 600 – 700 depending on the season.
Bah Freeman has been associated with the agriculture department since 1960 – 1970, and he got most of the seeds for his farm from them.
In 2000, Bah Freeman tried his hands into tea plantation. He cleared out 3 acres of his land and planted the Assam 520 tea variety. Since he has the advantage of human resources within his family, he can still plant the other agricultural products. Two of his sons care for the betel leaves plantation, three other looks after the tea plantation and the other plants. His two daughters help the brothers.
He sells his tea to Anderson, a tea brand with it’s own tea estate from Umran, Ri Bhoi District at Rs 18 per kg. They can harvest upto 150 – 200 kgs in a day, depending on the labor force. The labourers work part time with him. Since they are not expert, they can only harvest 20 – 35 kgs of tea leaves per person everyday.
The tea leaves are harvested from April to November, with November being the least, since the mercury drops, and the weather is less favourable for quality tea. If the rain comes early, they start harvesting from March. According to a tea expert, the life span of tea plant is 100 – years.
The Zizira team tried at picking the leaves under the supervision of Bah Freeman. It was a fun experience. We brought back our very own hand picked leaves so that we can try our hands on processing as well. Despite having little knowledge about tea processing, we were brave enough to try and process them after a little bit of exposure from Bah John’s tea processing unit.
After processing, the tea samples were sent out to an expert for testing. The feedback was: The tea leaves are of good quality, but the processing was not done the right way. However, Zizira team is still experimenting and learning the right way of processing from the experts.
Tea farm owners in Ri Bhoi plant tea for multiple reasons. Some of them being maintaining the land boundaries as it is a big issue in the area. The other reasons are to maintain cleanliness and to provide jobs to the locals. Bah Freeman has his reasons too, that is, building the future of his kids and their generations to come.
He encourages other farm owners to venture into tea plantation when the government provided them a subsidy, but they weren’t patient enough to sustain the business. The tea plantation provides employment all year round and generates revenue over time, but most owners are not able to see that.
When the team returned from the trip they encounter another tea farm owner on the way. He was cutting down his tea plants. We enquired why he was cutting down the plants, he said, the tea factory would not pay him even after delivering the tea leaves, so he is going to plant brooms instead.
This is a common issue that farmers encounter. They are always being pressured by big corporates to reduce their price to the point of giving up. However, we are lucky we still have a few determined owners who are not going to allow someone to take advantage of them. They believe in building their own future and the future of those dependent on them.
Although Bah Freeman doesn’t have proper amenities on his farm or electricity required for scientific and systematic tea plantation, he strives forward overcoming every obstacle. Bah Freeman is a role model for the districts and the state, who foresee the potential of tea business and how it can help the future generations of the region. He has the PERSEVERANCE and DETERMINATION to make it happen.
After the discussion with Bah Freeman, a tea farm owner of Ribhoi, Zizira team of explorer were inspired by his grit and vision, we believe that we can make a difference in Bah Freeman’s life and other tea farm owners in the region by opening market for them through online selling and by making the farmer famous by publishing their story in our website.
We are on a journey to empower Bah Freeman and help him gain the popularity and market for his tea but above all to let the world know that his determination will drive him and the states to prosperity. Let the journey begin!