It’s a warm morning in Lakhmipur in lower Assam, India, and Gobin Hazarika is wandering between his tea bushes, bending down to check for pests and insects. Everything is under control.
An organic operation, Hazarika keeps the pests at bay by planting Neem trees among the plants or burning tobacco leaves on his two-acre Meen Mohan Tea Estate.
“I use absolutely no pesticides in the garden and the end produce is plain and simple organic tea, either green or black orthodox,” he told local media a few years ago.
Assam is the single largest tea-growing region in the world and Hazarika is one of the many small-scale tea growers and producers there. Working alongside about 20 of his neighbours, he cultivates, plucks and prepares his special Smoked Tea as a supplier to our partner, Level Ground Trading in British Columbia.
He first entered the Canadian market in 2007, shipping about 50 to 60 kilograms of organic tea. Today he’s shipping hundreds of kilograms.
Celebrate your garden
As Canadians celebrate National Gardening Week this year, most gardeners in the country will usually think about their favourite pastime as a way to plant and tend flowers, fruits and vegetables. Digging around the dirt is a popular avocation once the snow clears. According to Statistics Canada, 57 per cent of all households report growing fruit, herbs, vegetables or flowers for personal use. But gardening, at least for some of our partner farmers around the world, goes far beyond marigolds or snap peas. They’re merging gardening and fair trade business practices in surprising ways.
Fair trade gardening isn’t for farmers who want to cut corners. It requires a huge amount of dedication, time and hard work. Hazarika and his workers take jute bags out into the fields, collecting leaves and buds by hand. He has produced his tea in a mud hut beside the lush gardens, after weathering the leaves in the sun to dry them. He then pounds the dried leaves with a “Dheki” (rice pounding equipment) and a wok over an underground fire.
“I make tea the traditional way, using tools that are available in every household in Assam,” he said.
Trees of life
Tradition is also the goal at Mulberries and Phontong-Camacrafts Cooperative in Laos, a social enterprise that involves a network of 3,000 farmers, weavers and makers from 200 families in 35 villages.
The Mulberries silk farm in Xieng Khouang province encourages locals to practice silk fibre production and trains them how to plant mulberry trees, rear silk worms, produce the silk threads and weave them.
Growing mulberry trees from branch cuttings is a sustainable and rewarding way for a Laos farmer to avoid slash and burn agriculture or raising the prevalent and illegal opium poppy cash crop.
Instead, the makers come to the farm and learn how to grow mulberry trees organically, pick the leaves to feed the silk worms, and rear them so they’ll grow usable cocoons. They bring that knowledge back to their villages and then return to the farm 45 days later with high-quality thread.
Mulberry trees prevent soil erosion and offer tasty mulberry fruit, which can also be used to create dyes, bark for tea, leaves for fertilizer and food for the silk worms. (Fun fact: A silk worm will eat about 30,000 times its weight in mulberry leaves!) The silkworms produce cocoons and waste that can be used for tree fertilizer too. And the silkworm pupae, which are extracted when the cocoons are ready, are even eaten by Laos villagers as a source of protein.
Maintaining and feeding silk worms is hard work – they’re fed mulberry leaves day and night – but the end result is worth it. Creating silk and weaving it into scarves and other silk products also ensures that age-old knowledge isn’t lost.
Noy, a silkworm expert with Mulberries, says, “I need to keep the tradition alive and have the young people continue the work.”