In some places around the world, the process of farming and producing tea hasn’t changed for hundreds of years. While these ancient methods are often sought after, they also come at a price. Labor shortages, food safety requirements, climate crisis, preservation of local ecosystems, and more are disrupting the industry. This is where “Smart Agriculture” comes into play, and how it is reshaping the way tea is farmed.
Labor Shortages and Mechanization
Labor shortages in the agricultural industry are no new problem. They have been growing for years as the demand for agriculture products increases, and the number of people willing to meet those demands dwindles. This often results in immigrant workers that are left to inhumane conditions and a lack of a fair wage. Let’s take a closer look at how the tea industry has tackled some of these issues.
Mechanization of harvesting has seen waves of growth in the last few decades. Harvesting is now done using mechanized harvesters. These harvesters can be large tractors or handheld harvesters. What may have taken days of work for a large group of people can now be done in less than an hour with as little as 2 people. And it is getting even more efficient (more on this later.)
Shading tea leaves creates a tea leaf that is rich in amino acids and creates the most sought-after taste in premium teas. The process of shading is very labor-intensive and requires good communication between all members. To aid in this process and make it more efficient, we developed a tractor that releases the shading mat from a roll and can even cover 3 rows of tea at a time. This drastically decreases the amount of time and labor that is needed.
Weeds are also a challenge. While we still use manual labor to remove weeds by hand, we have come up with some innovative solutions to aid this process. One of which is our remote-controlled mower. With an aging labor force, some jobs take too much of a toll on the body, and weeding is one of those jobs. Enter the remote control mower. This RC mower can be controlled vie a remote and anyone who can drive an RC car, can now operate a mower that is capable of steep inclines, and back-breaking work. In addition to that, we have created what we call the S.L. Steam Buster. This tractor uses steam to wilt weeds. Ridding a garden of weeds by dropping boiling water on them has been around for a long time, and by harnessing the power of steam, we can remove weeds naturally, efficiently, and in hard-to-reach areas such as under the canopy of the tea trees.
How Can We Make Mechanization More Efficient?
While mechanized harvesters have brought the tea industry into the Age of Industrialization, how can we advance further into the Age of Information & Technology? First, we have started to introduce drones to the fields. What can drones do exactly? Well, for now, the opportunities have no end in sight, but for us, we have utilized AeroSense AS-MC03-T drones equipped with MicaSense Altum-PT multi-spectral cameras that show us the NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetal Index) of our fields. What this means is that from one HQ, we can send out drones to check the fields and tell us if they are ready to harvest or not!
On top of this, we have also utilized AI harvesters. These are the same as the previously mentioned mechanized harvesters, but do not need a human operator! Through 3-D mapping of fields and onboard sensors, these AI harvesters can harvest the entire field themselves with cuts that are within 10mm accuracy! For this to be as efficient as possible, we have begun rolling out local 5-G to our fields so that we can have fast, and accurate controls in all of our farms, controlled from a single base of operations.
How to Use Smart Agriculture to Protect Local Eco-Systems
While Smart Agriculture is great, it means nothing if we are not preserving local ecosystems for the future. Ecosystems can be badly damaged by poor soil perpetuation, dangerous agrochemicals, trash, pests, poor weather, and a general lack of conservation. Here are some ways we have tackled these issues with Smart Agriculture.
Pests are a problem in any field of agriculture. Many people rely on pesticides to remove them, but as an adverse reaction, pesticide usage also kills friendly bugs and bees. These pesticides can waft into nearby homes as well as spill off into waterways hurting people and the local ecosystem. So the first step is not Smart Agriculture, but rather IPM (Integrated Pest Management.) IPM utilizes natural ways to thwart pests such as allowing apex predators like ladybugs, beetles, etc. To thrive in our gardens. Sometimes this effort is not enough, and that is when we need to start utilizing Smart Agriculture.
One day after a typhoon, our chairman was in the fields and realized that all the pests had been blown away. And with this revelation, he designed a machine that could create the power of a typhoon to wash away bugs with only wind and water before harvests. And from that idea came our “Hurricane King” which is a tractor that we designed that blows water sprays at high speeds, blowing the pests off the leaves while not damaging them!
But how about the pests and debris under the canopy that cause other problems like one of the tea trees’ greatest enemies, fungus? We had to come up with a solution to that as well, and we created a tractor that works sort of like a giant vacuum cleaner, sucking up the dead foliage and pests. This debris goes to our fertilizer plant and is mixed with other organic fertilizers which are then spread back onto the soil creating clean and healthy soil that doesn’t deteriorate over time.
Another idea we developed, we call the “Bran Jet”. Once the floor under the canopy is clean, we spread a layer of “bran” which are the husks of brown rice onto the topsoil. Not only does this add natural fertilizer, but the bran with added water also has an amazing ability to protect against fungus and scale insects which can destroy the tea trees.
And lastly, integrated sprinkler systems. Initially, these were an improvement over tall fans which blew warm air down to the tea trees to avoid frost which will burn the tea leaves. With sprinkler systems, we can prevent frost damage and go further to protect the trees from other things such as pests and droughts. The sprinkler systems are equipped with a temperature system that initiates the sprinklers when the temperature reaches freezing temps in which frost can form at. The leaves are then frozen in water which doesn’t hurt the leaf and prevents the frost from burning the leaf. The ice actually heats the leaf due to something called the “endothermic process.” The water is also used during pest mating season by washing away the newly laid eggs, preventing them from hatching. And lastly, the sprinklers prevent any worry of drought.
What is the future of Smart Agriculture?
The answer to that question is endless! Technology has advanced so much since the Age of Industrialization, and we are at a point where it is further advancing at a pace never matched in all of human history. One trend we are watching closely is bio-stimulants. Bio-stimulants are natural products of nature that are being studied in labs for their benefits in agricultural usage. They can be added to plants and soil to cause changes in vital and structural processes in order to influence plant growth through improved tolerance to abiotic stress and increase seed/leaf yield and quality. In addition, bio-stimulants reduce the need for fertilizers. Also, by partnering with Global leaders in the Tea Science community such as the Global Tea Initiative at UC Davis and the Kagoshima Prefecture Tea Industry Department. The future of Smart Agriculture in the tea industry and agriculture as a whole is a fun and exciting journey to watch as we advance into the great unknown!