Help from Above: NASA and Tea

fluffy clouds

And for Today’s Weather . . .

Once upon a time—well before Google, which would have been a great help here—I, a city girl, married into a farm-rooted family.

And as days passed into months into years, I continued to be mystified (well, annoyed) as to why every phone conversation with my mother-in-law began with not just a weather report—but a very detailed weather report . . . to the tenth-of-an-inch rainfall report . . . by the hour . . .

When asked how many tenths of an inch of rainfall we received, my vague “gee, I don’t know, did it rain here today?” or rambling “well I think it may have rained this week but I can’t remember, wait, I think I saw some puddles when I got out of work, but maybe that was last week” must’ve irritated her greatly.

A total disconnect between my world and that of my mother-in-law’s. I mean, really, who cares if we received 0.2 vs 0.3 inch of rainfall??

clouds like waves

Today’s  “Today’s Weather”

Climate change, unremitting drought, the precarious state of our pollinators—I am belatedly realizing how vital these details are for farmers, and ultimately, for every one of us. Including tea growers.

Today’s Weather Report for Tea

Earlier this year, the Darjeeling and Sikkim region had too little rain during the first flush of new growth. Ramifications of insufficient rain can include delayed or stunted leaf growth, which results in less tea and possibly a poorer quality of tea; insect infestations; an impacted local economy; and escalated production costs.

Assam—which produces over half of the total tea in India—is struggling with drought. Dry conditions mean major problems with pests, yet chemical control either cannot be used or must be used in moderation per the plant protection code, which was enacted on January 1, 2015, and which “deals with safe usage of crop protection products and methodologies that would be followed to reduce pesticide residues in tea” (The Hindu, 1/1/15).

Clearly this code is good for the health of those who work in the tea garden, of those who consume the tea, and of the tea plants themselves, yet pest control remains a critical problem.

weird angry clouds

And so, scientists at the Tocklai Tea Research Institute (TRI) are studying how “to use charged manure/compost with high nutrients, bio-fertilizers integrated with chemical fertilizers to decrease the use of chemicals and maintain soil health, yet sustain and increase production” (NDTV, 8/10/15).

Efforts are also underway to establish insurance coverage for tea growers to cushion weather-caused losses. There are similar protections for coffee, rubber, cardamom, and biofuel trees, among others. But because tea value is highly dependent upon the quality of the tea, judging financial loss is complex. In addition, damage to a tea garden may become manifest over a longer period of time, again complicating the insurance process.

But water, of course, remains essential. Whether supplied by rainfall or by irrigation.

Help from Above!

In the beginning of this year, NASA initiated the Soil Moisture Active Passive, or SMAP, program, which will, according to its website:

combine low-frequency microwave radiometer and radar to measure surface soil moisture and freeze-thaw state, providing for scientific advances and societal benefits. Direct measurements of soil moisture and freeze/thaw state are needed to improve our understanding of regional water cycles, ecosystem productivity, and processes that link the water, energy, and carbon cycles. Soil moisture information at high resolution enables improvements in weather forecasts, flood and drought forecasts, and predictions of agricultural productivity and climate change.

sunset on water

For the TMI, these data—including detailed information on the location and depth of the moisture in soil—will guide such operations as irrigation. And it seems logical that smarter irrigation will benefit the tea gardens of Assam.

The “societal benefits” promised by NASA’s mission are not hard to find in this case. When tea gardens thrive, people remain employed—which positively impacts people’s lives as well as the economy. And if the plants can remain healthy by natural means, they can fend off infestations—and our environment is in better balance, without relying on harmful pesticides.

And so—with a cup of TeaHaus’ Assam Mokalbari, one of my favorite black teas—I applaud those who are working creatively to use our earth’s limited resources more wisely.

And I’m going to google the weather report before the next phone call.

~”NASA Mission to Rejuvenate Classic Assam Tea,” NDTV, August 10, 2015,
~NASA Missions, SMAP,
~”Plant Protection Code Rolls Out to Make Tea a Safer Beverage,” The Hindu, January 1, 2015,
~”Tea Yet to Find Insurance Coverage against Adverse Weather Conditions,” The Economic Times, April 5, 2015,
~photography by Terry Rheinheimer


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