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Mechanized plucking ushers new hope for tea

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High labor costs, scarce labor and lower productivity among estate workers have forced a few of Sri Lanka’s Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) to consider investment in mechanized plucking, industry, sources said last week.

Experts have pointed out that they expected that over 50 percent of tea plucking would be mechanized in 2025 owing to the above issues. Secretary General, Tea Planters Association of Sri Lanka, H.M Goonetileke speaking to The Nation Gain stated that the sector would have to completely shift towards mechanized plucking in the next ten years.

According to Goonetileke, both high grown and low grown tea companies have chosen to adopt mechanized plucking methods.

Currently, nearly 10 to 15 percent of the total tea plucking is being carried out mechanically, according to industry sources.

Regional General Manager, Bogawantalawa Tea Estate PLC, Norwood Estate, U.K. Navaratne speaking to The Nation Gain said that they had begun a pilot project on mechanized tea plucking and would shift towards the process in the future.

“Around 15 percent of tea plucking is carried out mechanically at the moment. In the future it would increase and we will have to depend on this mode of plucking in a decade’s time,” he stated.

However, the usage of the technology spurred debates on the practicality of the usage owing to the terrains used for tea cultivation. Goonetileke stated that mechanized plucking was hugely popular in countries like Kenya but added that it was successful there since tea was planted on flat lands.

He, however, pointed out that the methodology adopted also depended on the practicality of the usage. He stated that the process of mechanized plucking had to suit the terrain where tea is planted. “Our tea plants are planted along slopes, therefore, mechanized tea plucking needs to suit the terrain too, he said.

Accordingly, two popular methods, shear harvesting and motorized plucking are adopted worldwide, where the former has been successful in Sri Lanka. Experts pointed out that the shear harvesting method was somewhat a ‘semi-mechanized’ methodology which was being tried in Sri Lanka’s plantations and was deemed successful due to its usability along the slopes. Navaratne stated that the shear plucking method was a better option to ensure quality since it was possible to identify and pluck quality leaf.

“As far as motorized plucking method is concerned, it will pluck the leaves on the top layer. Therefore, the quality would drop at first but then it would improve as we continue to use the method. In addition, this particular method would need two to three persons to carry the machine as well. Therefore, it is slightly difficult to use on the slopes. But we are working on this as well,” Navaratne said.

Goonetileke pointed out that training labor for mechanized plucking would not take much effort or money as the technology was straightforward and understandable.

Both Navaratne and Goonetileke stated that the decreasing labor was another key factor which had prompted the regional companies to adopt mechanized plucking. “There are many estates that face a dearth of laborers. In addition, majority of the younger generation have migrated to other parts of the country. Therefore, labor is a problem,” Goonetileke added.

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