STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Our colleague Julie McCarthy has spent years now ranging across India, and we get to follow along. India is a world of its own - the largest democracy, second only to China in population. And also, Julie found a remarkable source of tea from India's Assam province.
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: There's nothing simple about that cup of tea you may be clutching. Tea grower Tenzing Bodosa stands beside the vermilion flames of a brick oven that heats a drying contraption as he oversees his round-the-clock tea processing, fermenting, dehydrating, sorting.
TENZING BODOSA: Yeah, after sorting, then it's packaging and marketing. OK.
MCCARTHY: Tenzing is a marketer's dream. From the big Bodo tribe, he's known widely by his first name and exudes passion for tea, gratitude toward benefactors and an affability that attracts business. Tenzing sports a T-shirt bearing the logo of a New York importer of upscale teas called In Pursuit Of Tea. Founder Sebastian Beckwith said he was impressed with samples of Tenzing's tea, and in 2016, came to check out the operation. A one-day inspection was all it took. The American tea aficionado ordered 500 kilos on the spot, fetching 500,000 rupees - about $8,000 - a windfall for Tenzing.
You're going to get a half a million rupees from him.
MCCARTHY: ...First time out.
BODOSA: Yeah, its big money for me, and for here, this is big money.
MCCARTHY: Beckwith says Tenzing's tea, with notes of black currant, is one of their best sellers, and he appreciates the way Tenzing produces his tea.
SEBASTIAN BECKWITH: Produced in a clean way without chemicals and that tastes good - he's someone who's succeeding on a very small level, and I think it's great.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRUSH CRACKLING)
MCCARTHY: Tenzing's tiny tea estate sits along the folds of the Himalayas and hugs the mountain kingdom of Bhutan to the north. By late morning, some 30 workers have been plucking leaves for hours. Tenzing transitioned to organic farming after an incident with chemical pesticides on his own farm.
BODOSA: After I was spraying, I feel like vomiting and headaches. I feel - why I feel like that?
MCCARTHY: Then the fish died in the water where he'd washed his clothes. Then the rabbits died. Tenzing said he worried he was selling people poison. His small tea estate is now chemical-free.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Mmm hmm.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).
MCCARTHY: Sumitra Sabar, age 60, moves in a small group along dark green rows, softly talking and plucking leaves under a bright sky. But danger lurks in this seemingly tranquil scene. Sumitra says the tea pickers have an ever-present dread - wild elephants.
SURESH MUNDA: (Foreign language spoken).
MCCARTHY: Twenty-three-year-old Suresh Munda recalls one of the scariest encounters, when an elephant approached them as the tire of their vehicle blew out, and they couldn't move. The elephant wandered off. Just next to the tea estate, Tenzing has established a 30-hectare wildlife preserve that attracts herds of elephants, which roam between Assam and Bhutan. Twigs crackling, he carefully leads us in.
It's a very healthy ground cover, and trees, and grasses, and flowers, and wildlife and birds.
Tenzing spots an elephant's fresh print inside the preserve just steps from the tea estate.
BODOSA: Elephant kicked here. So they kick here.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS SQUAWKING)
MCCARTHY: Wild peacocks flap above the treetops.
BODOSA: They're not happy, yeah.
MCCARTHY: They sense danger, he says, and ushers us out.
Are you at risk of losing some employees because they're going to be too afraid to work here?
BODOSA: Yeah, that's true. That's true. Some worker don't wanted to work in my farm. (Speaking Assamese).
MCCARTHY: In Assamese, he adds, earlier they would run around in a panic at the sight of an elephant. But now, he says, they've become used to them. Tenzing's commitment to conserving nature and growing organically has attracted a following. Farmers such as Bolin Chandra Bodo beat a path to his door for advice on organic methods.
BOLIN CHANDRA BODO: (Speaking Assamese).
MCCARTHY: Bodo says chemical fertilizers are used everywhere. Everything is so adulterated, he says; we all must learn to grow organic and stay healthy. Bodo and the 25 farmers gathered in Tenzing's backyard call themselves foot soldiers in a campaign to transform farming here. Tenzing says in the past eight years, he's interacted with more than 20,000 farmers. When they fret over their organic ventures not making a profit, he urges them to keep faith in themselves. This 31-year-old farmer reformer is building a movement.
BODOSA: I love to teach them. I love to share whatever I learned. I want to give back to the people.
MCCARTHY: And, Tenzing says, give back to nature. Julie McCarthy, NPR News.
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