Where is Mike?

This post has nothing to do with the famous game “where is Charlie?” where you had to find someone called Charlie in a crowd who sometimes were wearing the same clothes as him. And no, it has nothing to do with Mike + the Mechanics, apart from the last part of the name of this famous band from before (before being different for the different people but I must get back on tracks), so let’s begin with my topic of the day: mechanisation.

Mechanisation is switching from a work done by hand or animals to one done by machines. This is a process that began a long time ago, when a man or a woman decided to use hand tools to perform certain tasks.

The idea was probably first to do a better job, to ease things, to be more productive. One of the first examples of a “modern” tool like this one was the mechanical reaper invented by the Celts (and then forgotten before being reinvented in the 19th century) and that might originate in a shortage of labour.

This was the main reason behind the increase in the use of mechanical devices in Western Europe since with first, the industrial revolution that led to less people being available in the fields and then the First World War, a big shortage of labourers appeared at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. In the USA, the situation was different because of the sheer size of the country and its “low” density when compared to Western Europe.

What are the main advantages in using mechanical devices to harvest, pluck… different products?

First, in most sectors, machines have become cheaper than man (if you include all the costs). Second, the raw productivity difference/the efficiency (how much hectares can be harvested by each of them in one hour) is clearly an advantage for the machines.

What are the disadvantages? For most fragile crops or for those with specific plucking needs, the problem is that mechanical plucking is destructive since hand work can be more specific and cautious. This is or this is not a problem depending on how the tea is later treated (CTC or whole leaf teas with the tip and two leaves or going into teabags for one of the big companies out there).

Since the main advantage of mechanisation is to replace man, it is no wonder that machines are more used in countries with either a less numerous work force (because fewer people are available for this kind of job or because the population numbers are low), a costly one… A few names? Japan, the United States, some places in India…

Just look at the videos below.

Is this something new? Not really.

The method was to turn the tea plantations into outdoor factories, to « industrialise » every stage of the process as far as possible and by this method to reduce costs. […] What made tea plantations special was that they took the process from start to finish; from the clearing of the land, through planting and picking”

The normal solution in such a situation would be to mechanise”

Green Gold by Alan MacFarlane and Iris MacFarlane, Ebury Press 2003

These two quotes describe the situation in Assam in the 1860s when people invested a lot after the boom in the tea industry and faced some problems like the not optimised nature of their estates, the high mortality rate on the plantations, the need to “import” people to work there (with really harsh conditions during the travels).

As I said, mechanisation began a long time ago and will not stop anywhere soon. The only question we need to answer is can engineers design machines that will be able to pluck every kind of tea without breaking it?

This remains to be seen.

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