On a remote bushy road with three dears and a raccoon in sight, we started wondering whether we were on a Safari trip. As we approached the thick cedar mountain forest, the weather grew slightly chilly and the clouds grew darker signalling it was about to rain.
We were visiting our biggest farm of about 0.5 hectare. I know that could sound very surprising but the average hectares owned by a green tea farmer in Wazuka is about 2 hectares and this could be in as many as 10-15 different locations. Another interesting characteristic is that most farmers are between the ages of 65-85 so as they grow older, they loose the energy to maintain all their farms and they loan a piece to others, hence the hectarage of old farmers keep diminishing and that of young farmers keep increasing. Tea farmers in Wazuka see the art of farming as their unique culture and an important tradition to preserve for younger generation so this leads to the current practice of loaning farms and not actual sale. These farmers still maintain their interest in old farms and constantly monitor their maintenance. They gain some pride in seeing the farm well kept with beautifully manicured leaves.
Back to our story of the 0.5 hectare farm, the farm is situated on top of a hill and was abandoned for 6 years because the bridge that connects it to the main road was damaged.
For the co-founders of d:matcha who have been struggling to gain some lands to farm on, an abandoned farm on a tall hill seemed a very good opportunity even though the cost of constructing the bridge and repairing the entire road was quite huge for a start-up to bear.
Being with them for the last three weeks, I realize they are very passionate about connecting with old farmers, learning their craft and sharing the story of Wazuka tea farmers with green tea lovers across the world.
The path of transformation for this 0.5 hectare farm has not been easy. Tea trees are well controlled in terms of height so abandoned farms tend to over grow and develop very hard stems and fruits in the process. The first activity by the farm team was to cut the shrubs with a motorized hand cutter and then level it with a cutting mover. The pile of debris are collected by hand and gathered onto the edges of the farm. The ideal level is to get a height of about 30cm to spur the tree into regeneration.
The stump of the tree will start producing more leaves when it rains. Considering the hardness of the stem and the height of the tree, it took 20 days for a team of two to complete work on 0.3 hectares of the farm. The remaining 0.2 hectare will be finished in due time when the weather is cooler.
The inspiring story about dying farms are the hope and ingenuity of the entrepreneurs and newcomers who move to the country side to work in agriculture. They inject a lot of energy into the craft and are willing to go against all odds to see their businesses succeed.
What we need to take action on is how to create policies that make it easier for newcomers to acquire land when they have a good motive at heart. I recently heard of a small community nearby that has bye laws that permits ownership/rent of land to a person only after 20 years of residence. Sadly, this does not spur much hope for an industry threatened by an ageing population.