As you enjoy your next cup of tea, spare a moment to consider the elaborate process that goes into producing that seemingly simple sip of tea.
In the largest tea-growing region in India, the hazards range from red spider mites to herds of wild elephants.
However, grower Tenzing Bodosa, a native of Assam, fights the former and unusually invites the latter. From the large Bodo tribe, Tenzing stands beside the vermilion flames of a brick oven that provides the heat for a drying contraption erected in his backyard.
Tea leaves plucked from Tenzing's small estate are fermented, dried and sorted. "Next comes packaging and marketing," he says with the same wide smile that adorns his tea label. Tenzing is a marketer's dream. He exudes a passion for tea, gratitude toward his supporters, and an affability that attracts interest in his tea estate.
Tenzing's small 13-hectare (about 32 acres) tea estate sits in the folds of the Himalayas and borders the mountain kingdom of Bhutan to the north. By late morning, some 30 workers have been plucking leaves for hours. Their tightly pruned shrubs are the symbol of Assam, the region that produces half of India's tea each year.
About eight years ago, Tenzing started to notice that he often felt nauseous and had headaches after spraying insect-killing chemicals, and wondered why he felt so sick.
But when the fish died in the water where he washed his clothes, and then the rabbits at his farm died, Tenzing became worried the he was selling people "poison" for tea.
These incidents with pesticides were enough to convince Tenzing that he needed to change his approach, and he transitioned to organic farming. Now his small tea estate is free of synthetic chemicals.
Under a bright sky, 60 year old Sumitra Sabar, moves along dark green rows, softly humming while plucking tea leaves and placing them a wicker basket that she carries on her back. But a danger lurks in this seemingly tranquil scene. The tea pickers have an ever-present dread of wild elephants while working on the estate."Fear is always there, because the elephants are always there," Sumitra says.
Suresh Munda, 23, recalls a frightening encounter, when an elephant approached them just as the tire of their vehicle blew out, immobilizing them. Fortunately, the elephant wandered off. The fear of wild elephants had sometimes led to an unwillingness by tea pickers to work at Tenzing's farm, risking his business. "Earlier, they would run around in a panic at the sight of an elephant. But now they've become used to them," he says.
Just beside the tea estate, Tenzing has established a 74-acre wildlife preserve that attracts herds of elephants, which roam between Assam and Bhutan. The preserve is lush green with a healthy ground cover, and an abundance of flowers, wildlife and birds.
Tenzing explains that this natural park helps stimulate growth in his tea plantation. He is "collecting 15 different plants" full of calcium, potassium and iron, that he ferments and uses as fertilizer for his tea bushes.
Tenzing puts his passion for conservation down to his grandmother, who never allowed anyone to cut a tree. His commitment to conserving nature — and growing organically — has attracted a following. Tenzing says that over the last eight years, he's shared his knowledge of organic farming with more than 20,000 farmers everywhere
Bodo and the 25 other farmers who have gathered in Tenzing's backyard call themselves "foot soldiers" in a campaign to transform farming in the region. “Chemical fertilizers are used everywhere--everything is so adulterated," Bodo says. "We all must learn to grow organic and stay healthy.
"I love to teach them. I want to share what I learn. I want to give back to my people," Tenzing says, adding that if we "respect nature, nature will respect us."
When other farmers fret over their organic ventures not making a profit, Tenzing, the young farmer and reformer urges them to "keep faith" in themselves, and to keep building a movement for healthy farming.