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Georgian farmers clutching at tea straws2009-02-13 09:47
On 10 February Georgia's parliament set itself an ambitious task - to resume tea-growing. In the 1970s, up to 100,000 tonnes of tea were produced in the republic every year. Nowadays, production barely reaches 7,500 tonnes. However, quality is more important than quantity, as we know. Especially if we are talking about Georgian tea.
Archil Gegenava, chairman of the Georgian parliamentary committee on agricultural affairs, initiated the tea campaign. He has also become head of the new working group which is aiming to help the industry to recover and subsequently develop.
Recovering, in the sense of "restoring the good name" of Georgian tea which has been lost, is definitely necessary. Many people in the post-Soviet sphere can remember the tasteless "Bodrost" (Vigour) and "No36". Back then luxury Georgian and Indian teas needed to be got hold off unofficially, and people had never even heard of Chinese tea.
The journalist and cookery expert William Pokhlebkin wrote that the quality of Georgian tea fell sharply because the technological standards for picking and drying the tea leaves stopped being followed in order to produce ever greater volumes.
In one piece of research on northern tea, the authors recall a satirical article from the magazine Krokodil about a cow which eats around the tea bushes in Georgia. The point being that animals do not like the tannin which this plant contains. The incident described in the article was illustrating the degeneration of high-quality tea.
After the collapse of the USSR and the arrival of cheap Asian tea into the post-Soviet sphere, tea production in Georgia began to fall. Nowadays, as eye-witnesses tell you, Georgian cows wander quietly around the old plantations and gladly chew on the leaves of this tropical crop.
Eduard Shevardnadze's government tried to revive this industry. Millions of lari were allocated from the budget for supporting tea exports. But this did not help to restore the neglected plantations. Only one company, created jointly with the German firm "Martin Bauer", managed to get back up and running. The English company "Lipton" buys up the raw materials from its farms.
Following the Rose Revolution, subsidies for tea production effectively dried up. However, as Tengiz Svanidze, managing director for the Association of Tea Producers, remarked at a parliamentary session, in 2008 twice as much local produce was sold in comparison with the previous year. But this share nevertheless only constituted 9-10 percent of the total volume sold in Georgia.
In Achil Gegenava's opinion, the state should encourage businessmen, promote exports and popularise Georgian tea. However, in an interview with your GeorgiaTimes correspondent, he could not say how this would actually be realized. After all, the rules of the WTO, which Georgia joined back in 1999, include a series of restrictions on states preventing them from giving direct support to local producers.
Moreover, some of the former tea plantations have become private property. You will not persuade the current owners of this land to take up labour-intensive and costly tea production just by being eloquent, especially because the tough competition from imported tea means that this industry would be unlikely to offer the profits they expect. The chairman of the parliamentary committee on agricultural affairs admits that tea producers currently have "big problems concerning the quality of their produce, technology, and setting their prices". So to begin with it would be a good idea for the Georgian deputies to sort out the existing farms, and only then think about the further development of the industry.