Argentina, Land of the … Sustainable Tea?

Jill Alexander- Marketing Supervisor

Argentina Tea Fields

Quick! What immediately comes to mind when you hear “Argentina”? Don’t ask Google – what pops into your head? Tango. Evita. Messi. Maybe Patagonia. Perhaps Yerba Mate, a traditional drink from the South American rainforest tree of the same name. It is a national drink of Argentina, but I was still surprised to see yerba mate everywhere during my recent visit, on menus as well as in hands (even on remote trails in the rainforest), easily identified by the traditional cup (called a mate) and straw (bombilla).

While visiting tea estates in the northern Misiones province, I expected to see more tea consumption. However, Argentina doesn’t crack the top 10 for tea producing nations and the vast majority is exported, much to the U.S. for iced tea production. Argentina is a major source of tea used in S&D’s iced tea blends, a driving force behind a sustainable initiative that united several partners to help ensure the future of the region’s tea.

Sustainable Tea Project

© 2020 Solidaridad

Producers with less than 25 acres make up 80-90% of Argentina’s tea farmers. Misiones itself is home to a unique subtropical ecosystem, a perfect combination for a project designed to protect the forest and water supplies as well as improve tea quality and farm safety for smallholders. The project began in 2017 with a three-year goal to provide training, tools and technical assistance necessary to improve the livelihood of more than 110 farmers and, along the way, enable them to achieve Rainforest Alliance Certification.

Collaboration was critical as S&D embarked on the first tea initiative for our sustainable sourcing platform Raíz Sustainability®. The project was made possible thanks to partners McDonald’s, Solidaridad, the Rainforest Alliance, local tea processors and, of course, the tea-producing families who took part in the journey.

Challenges

Argentina Tea Trip 2020

© 2020 Solidaridad

Juan Stucker began the producer panel at the final project workshop with an apology. Like the majority of proud smallholder tea farmers who participated, he was reluctant to break from tradition and try something new. Establishing trust between the producers and the partners was a significant obstacle from the start.

But why is such a project, a sustainable tea initiative, necessary in the first place? The simple answer is that current conditions are not sustainable – many smallholder producers find maintaining profitability on tea challenging while forests and waterways in tea regions are threatened. The reasons why are more complex. The results are putting tea production at risk as hardworking farmers abandon tea fields for more favorable crops and their grown children abandon the farms for more stable livelihoods.

For context, we visited a typical smallholder tea farm in Argentina that was not part of the sustainability project. Discarded items littered the pathways. Outdated equipment had limited safety measures, such as a manual hedge trimmer with an open blade. There were weeds plainly evident in the tea rows (harvested with the tea) while the plants themselves were cut unevenly (allowing too much stalk to be included) and too low (endangering the health of the entire plant). The difference was startling. While the project farms were humble, they were well-kept and organized. The neat rows of tea plants were spectacular, rivaling the professionally manicured hedges in my own neighborhood.

One universal issue yet to be resolved is the recycling of chemical containers. Sustainability procedures direct what chemicals are permitted as well as how they are used and stored for personal and environmental safety. But what happens to the finished bottles? The local hazardous waste collection site we take for granted is nonexistent. The current protocol is to lock them up, a stopgap measure while a more sustainable solution is still being sought.

Meaningful Impact

Nicolau Family - Argentina Tea

While farmers were initially hesitant to join the project, there is now a wait list. Over 165 producers, roughly 1.5x the original goal, have received life-changing support with about 85% of the participants also achieving Rainforest Alliance Certification. Over 4500 acres of land (seven square miles) are now under conservation efforts as part of a certified farm or designated preservation area.

We saw the changes firsthand. For generations, the cattle on Enrique Senger’s farm had free access to the property’s stream – water which was also used on the farm. Not only is this unsanitary, erosion caused by the animals was causing the waterway to dry up. A simple fence and watering trough saved the stream and improved health conditions for the family. Arnoldo Holzmeister was proud to show us a new locked shed for secure chemical storage complete with a custom-built eyewash station. Roadways beside fields were left covered in grass, a practice traditionally viewed as unclean and lazy. Yet keeping the grass is a simple, effective way to reduce soil erosion and increase water retention in the fields. Nearly all the family members mentioned better organization, learning to work in a more efficient way to increase productivity and profitability.

Participants in the program were provided with a locked cage for agrochemical storage along with a list of approved chemicals, resulting in safer fertilizer application. Soil analysis further contributed to a reduction in chemical usage by allowing the application of only what was needed for the tea plants to thrive, saving money for farmers as well as improving safety for the community.

Engaging younger generations is another key benefit. When a farm is struggling, there is little incentive for children to continue the family business. When I asked Arnoldo’s young son Miguel what he wants to be when he grows up, he was quick to answer: an agronomist. Carlos Horoczuk’s son Cristian is now a technician with the local tea cooperative. His teenage son Alex was an active participant in the final workshop, pointing out that the training provided a hand up, not a handout, with practical learnings they can continue to apply on their own.

The Horoczuk family farm is a shining success story. Remarkably robust plants, an impeccably tidy estate and undeniable increases in production and profit serve as proof of what is possible. With a confidence bolstered by accomplishment, Irma Nicolau states the most significant impact of her participation, “Trabajas menos y ganás más.” Working less and earning more is a sign of success for any business. It is difficult to believe that just six years ago, Carlos and Irma’s showcase estate was a typical smallholder tea farm.

What’s Next?

Although this initiative has officially concluded, I am pleased to learn that the farmers we visited outside of this project will be getting technical assistance from the local cooperative. Further, the participating partners are committed to continued adherence to the best practices that were applied throughout the project with an added goal of ensuring the remainder of participating farms earn Rainforest Alliance Certification.

For my fellow tea drinkers, the proud smallholder tea farmers of the Misiones province would like you to know this:  the tea they grow just for you is born of passion and raised with genuine care for the plant as well as the planet. For all of us, appreciating the dedication it takes for smallholder tea farmers to continue their way of life should cultivate a strong harvest of sustainable tea champions.