EghtesadOnline: In the current tea harvest season, the government purchased more than 139,000 tons of fresh tea leaves, worth 2.34 trillion rials (close to $62 million), from farmers, of which 31,200 tons of dried tea have been produced this year (March 2016-17).
"Tea production has registered a 60% increase [compared to last year], marking a record high in the last seven years," said the head of Iran Tea Organization, Mohammad Vali Rouzbehan, in an exclusive interview with Financial Tribune.
Tea, according to the official, is an important commodity in Iran, blended with Iranian culture to the point that it cannot be replaced with any other beverage.
"About 110,000 tons of dried tea, worth between $550 million and $600 million (based on global prices and if it was all to be imported) are consumed in Iran every year. This year, we succeeded in producing over $150 million worth of the product and the rest amounting to 80,000 tons were imported or smuggled into the country," Financial Tribune quoted him as saying.
"We managed to decrease imports by $50 million, which means more jobs were created and less foreign exchange left the country," he said.
> Production Back on Track
Tea production in Iran has been experiencing consecutive increases year after year since President Hassan Rouhani took office in August 2013.
Three years ago, production of dried tea amounted to 14,000 tons and last year to 19,600 tons, meeting 16% and over 18% of the domestic demand respectively. This year, with the production of around 31,200 tons, 28-29% of domestic demand were met.
Rouzbehan added that close to 100,000 households earn their living, directly or indirectly, through tea production.
"Over two decades ago, we used to produce around 75,000 tons of dried tea in Iran. But since then, due to many reasons, including lack of support by previous governments as well as despondent farmers' conversion of tea farms to paddy fields or putting them into more profitable uses, our production has dipped to reach 14,000 tons in the fiscal March 2014-15," he said.
> Farmers Endorsed
With the government's support, says Rouzbehan, nearly 4,000 hectares of abandoned tea farms have been revived over the past three years.
"Every hectare yields about 2 tons of dried tea. With the revival of each hectare, one direct and sustainable job is created," he said.
The official believes that measures taken by the Rouhani government in recent years have encouraged farmers to take the job more seriously and remain hopeful that their efforts will pay off.
"This year, the government increased its guaranteed purchase price for tea by 100%. Apart from that, close to $5.3 million worth of non-interest banking facilities were earmarked two years ago by the Tea Organization for farms to prune the tea bushes and improve their farming methods. Since then, farmers have been putting these loans into good use, which has resulted in an increase in tea quality and production," he said.
Every year, the government includes certain agricultural products in its guaranteed purchase plan to build up its strategic reserves and control prices in the domestic market.
"Low-interest loans of more than $2.6 million have been dedicated to tea factories to overhaul and renovate their machinery, sanitize the production process and optimize energy consumption."
There are close to 150 tea processing factories in Iran working at 50% of their capacity due to the decline in production over the last two decades.
Another positive measure was the launch of the Tea Industry Support Fund two years ago, which is now worth $10.6 million. Close to 41,000 households and 60 factories are members of the fund that offers them facilities for horticultural affairs and overhead expenses.
Iran Tea Organization plans to install localized irrigation systems in tea farms.
"At present, of the almost 25,000 hectares of farms under tea cultivation, only 500 hectares enjoy localized irrigation. Our plan is to equip 1,000 hectares with the facility every year," he said.
All these have made tea farmers and factory owners hopeful and they have once again put their trust in government support.
> 100% Natural, Pesticide-Free
Over the past few years, Iranians have once again reconciled with domestically produced tea.
According to Rouzbehan, Iranian tea's milder color and fragrance compared with foreign brands is the reason behind the decline in market demand over the past years.
"Yet, this year, more than 27,000 tons of the produced tea were instantly purchased. This is because people have become cognizant of the fact that the kind of tea that, when brewed, produces a strong color, fragrance and taste has chemicals and more often than not unapproved food additives. This is while Iranian tea is 100% natural and healthy in this respect," he said.
In brewing foreign brand tea, he said, only one teaspoon will suffice for making 6 to 8 cups of the beverage, which is due to all the harmful chemicals and essence used in processing them.
"To brew natural Iranian tea, one teaspoon of the product must be used to make one to one and a half cups of the herbal drink," he said.
The official noted that Iran is the only country in the world that uses no pesticides whatsoever in its tea farms.
"Tea in Iran is cultivated in the northern provinces of Gilan and Mazandaran. The special climate of the region causes the tea plants to hibernate every year during the six months of autumn and winter. The extreme cold terminates a majority of the pests and the rest are dealt with through biological methods. As such, Iranian tea is considered organic. This gives us an edge [in international markets]," he said.
According to Rouzbehan, Iranians are picky tea drinkers obsessed with the quality of tea, therefore high-quality Iranian tea is consumed inside the country.
"We export between 4,000 and 5,000 tons of low quality tea to our neighboring countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Turkey as well as the Commonwealth of Independent States. This year, we also had exports to some European countries," he said.
"Some 100 kilograms of white tea were also produced in Iran this year, part of which was sold in the domestic market and the rest was exported. Each kilo of white tea is priced at over $317."