In continuation to my exploration of the impact of unseasonal rainfall and climate change on coffee, I reached out to yet another coffee plantation – Balanoor Plantations, where I spoke to Rohan Kuriyan to know more about how things have been at their plantations. Located in the Chikmagalur region, the plantation has a history of close to 9 decades.
Here is my conversation with Rohan from Balanoor Plantations:
Bhavi: Tell us about your plantations.
Rohan: Our plantations are situated about an hour and half away from Chikmagalur. We primarily grow tea and coffee here, along with pepper, timber, rubber, areca nut, etc. we also grow small quantities of fruits like chikoo, jackfruit, guavas and avocados. Spread across 2000 acres of land, the estates were bought by my great, great grandfather from the British run, Brooke Bond estates. Over the years, we’ve kept the plantation within the family, and have worked very hard to maintain the old British charm of the place on the outside, while upgrading it on the inside.
Bhavi: What are the different sustainable practices you follow on your estates?
Rohan: We hold the Rainforest Alliance accreditation for our plantation and we adopt all the practices that are required to maintain it. We have also converted 50 acres to Organic as well. We plant high-density shade trees such as silver oak, dadap, atti, havalige, balanjee, jackfruit, figs, etc. on our estates. These trees help reduce the high summer temperature and prevent evaporation loss among the plants, especially our tea and coffee and also help us in maintaining the ecosystem of the area that we are in. We take seeds from the plants we identify and grow them in our own nurseries on the estates. We also follow the Vietnamese pattern, though instead of every 25 years, we re-plant our coffee and our tea every 40 years. The leaf litter from the trees are used as mulch in the farm and this helps in building up the organic matter of the soil. On our estates, we have built check dams, water and soil collection pits, rainwater harvesting tanks, mini water dams, ravines to collect as much natural water as possible. Over the years, we have always aimed to give back more to nature than we take from it. The best thing we discovered recently from experts who came to our plantation was that we now put back more water into the Earth than we take from it, we are now a water-positive estate. That makes me really proud of our plantations. We have always maintained a policy of using as less chemical fertilizers as possible and use it only when it is absolutely unavoidable. All our coffee is tested for the presence of any harmful chemicals or substances. We plant the Guatemala Grass and Vetiver grass all over the estate. This helps us prevent soil erosion, serves as valuable organic matter when needed, minimizes the effects of drought, prevents weed growth on the soil, while maintaining soil fertility. This turns out to be quite a bit expensive for us, but if we won’t support nature, how will it support us ever? And then, who are we without Mother Nature! We have an effluent treatment plant on premises as well, through which we make sure the water is treated before we use it within our properties. We do not allow any effluent water out of the estate. We follow sustainable practices not just on our estates but also provide sustainable housing to all our labor force. These labor lines are equipped with energy-saving lighting and smokeless stoves. All in all, our tea and coffee are not just our produce or just a crop for us, they are our way of life and we always believe in giving back more to nature than we take from it.
Bhavi: When did you first notice the changes in climate?
Rohan: I would say about 2008 onwards there has been insufficient rainfall, and we realized we couldn’t just depend on the rainfall anymore. This is when we began putting in place a sustainable irrigation infrastructure that would irrigate all the estates on our plantation. 2013-14 onwards the rainfall has gotten even more erratic. The irrigation lines we put in place are now our permanent backup. As a thumb rule, you need about 2 inches of rainfall for getting good healthy coffee blossoms, called as the ‘Blossom Rain’. After 21 days of the Blossom Rain, you need another 1 to 1.5-inch rainfall called as ‘Backing Rain’ to sustain the blossoms. We do not wait for the rains now days. When we are ready, we irrigate with the hope that it rains before we turn on the pumps.
Bhavi: How do you mitigate the damage?
Rohan: We grow trees in between coffee and tea plantations to prevent evaporation loss, and provide organic manure for the soil. We plant jungle trees to maintain the ecosystem on our estates, which helps provide shades for our plants and also prevent soil erosion, especially since our estates are mostly located on hill sides where soil erosion and land-slides are often a common occurrence. There is little we can do as such to fight against nature. Nature will take its own course after all. As farmers we can only do our best to protect and conserve nature to the best of our abilities. We are now using shade nets in our coffee drying yards to protect the coffee against the harsh afternoon temperatures.
Bhavi: Has the climate change affected your harvests in the past?
Rohan: Yes, it has, and it is very heart-breaking. There was a year when we were actually expecting a bumper crop, everything was going right, until the time for rains came, and there were no rains. No rain at all. There was rain all around our estates but not on ours. Climate change is for real, if this isn’t evidence enough, I don’t know what is. Summers are getting hotter, rainfalls are off their usual times – there is no rainfall when there should be loads, and there is ample rain when there should be none. With this years unseasonal rains, we saw videos from grower farms where coffee that was out in the drying yards got wet and also washed away with the flowing water. For us, we deploy maximum workers to the yard to cover the coffee and then to bundle it so that water doesn’t seep in and wet the parchment. This can protect the coffee, however we still do have some amount of damage.
Bhavi: What is done with the waste then?
Rohan: Nothing on an estate ever goes waste, it will always be used in some or the other way. We have been fairly well prepared for unseasonal rains and been able to ensure that not much coffee is damaged or lost. However, due to the rains, we will get a higher percentage of Cherry coffee which instead of selling the coffee as specialty coffee, we end up having to sell whatever we can as commercial coffee. There is some coffee that also gets purchased by local vendors. The coffee husk and skin gets used as manure. We try our best to prevent fruits and cherries from falling off prematurely, but if it does, we still rush to pick it up, because if we don’t, it leads to an increased probability of an attack by the borers (a kind of pest). Eventually, everything finds a use on the estate.
Bhavi: How does the rising temperature affect your plants and trees?
Rohan: Summers are getting hotter and hotter every year. The main thing these rising temperatures do is put the plants and trees in stress, they actually go into survival mode. We end up losing a lot of plants due to this every single year. Apart from that, every plant and tree is harmed in some or the other way. For instance, mangoes will not give a good crop if the temperature shoots too high. The fruits and flowers won’t set properly or they will just drop because the plant is in so much stress due to the heat. There is immense evaporation loss from the plants. It becomes absolutely essential to irrigate then, because if we don’t, the plants will just not survive. The rising temperature in the drying yards will lead to accelerated drying and also lead to cracking of the outter skin. The change in weather has also led to a change in the pest and disease incidence. We are noticing pests and fungal attacks during periods when we normally do not have it.
Bhavi: In India, weather forecasts have a reputation of their own. How helpful have they been for you?
Rohan: Well, weather forecasts deal with very broad regions, where as, weather is actually a very localized phenomenon. Weather forecasts are helpful sometimes, but not always. Like I said before, there have been times when there was a forecast of good rain, and there really was good rainfall in some areas around our estates, but not our part of the hills. Weather and climate are becoming really erratic.
Bhavi: With such a vast estate, you must employ a large labor force. How do you support your labor?
Rohan: We provide sustainable housing for our labor. It is not just a single room like they used to have in British times. We demolished the old British labor lines, and build rows of bigger and better housing with 2 BHK plans, attached washrooms, running water and round-the-clock electricity. We have a hospital on our plantation with visiting doctors as well as resident staff. There is a creche in place for young children of our staff when both the parents are working, which commonly happens. We have a school on the plantation going from nursery to Class X, and we are very, very proud of the children there. Apart from these, we provide many useful amenities for the laborers. We wouldn’t be where we are without our staff, and we make sure they get an opportunity to grow and a better life, as we grow.
Bhavi: What would you like to tell the people in general?
Rohan: I would like to say that climate change is a reality. Anytime you doubt that, talk to a farmer, they will tell you how bad the situation really is. I would urge people to visit a farm or a plantation near them, not just as a tourist or to click pictures, but to genuinely understand the ground realities and actually see the farm and the work that goes on. And always, always support your local growers. Try not to bargain with them, it is not an easy job to grow the food you eat, so support them in every way you can. Grow more plants around you, if you live a in flat, try having a terrace or a balcony garden. Support Mother Nature and she will give back generously, more than you can imagine.
To know more about the Balanoor Plantation, visit their website:
You can also follow them on Instagram, here:
In my previous post, I had talked about how the unseasonal rainfall affects the crops and agriculture everywhere, and went on to discuss in more detail about the impact on coffee. In that post, I spoke to Navin Rajes from MSP Coffee, where he tells us about the impact of climate change and unseasonal rainfall that they are observing at their coffee estates.
If you missed that post, check it out here:
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