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COFFEE QUEEn Unnamalai Thiagarajan
COFFEE QUEEn Unnamalai Thiagarajan

CoffeeWoman Unnamalai Thiagarajan on what it takes to succeed in a competitive world

Once every 45 days, Unnamalai Thiagarajan takes an overnight train to Mysore or Ooty. There she hops into a car for a two-and-a-half-hour drive to Gudalur. Finally, she transfers to a jeep to reach the Balmaadi (originally Paalmadi) Estate. It’s quite a journey to work, up those unpaved mountain roads but when Thiagarajan says, “I love my workplace,” she means it. You would too, if you reported for work at a high elevation coffee estate with “hanging mist, rich soil, animal movement, ancient trees, rocks and running streams.”

Thiagarajan loves her job, the responsibility of keeping afloat the 168 ha plantation where she grows coffee, tea, cardamom, cinnamon and stevia leaves organically. She won’t say it, but she is a success – she’s won the Flavour of India Fine Cup Award twice.

Coffee is one of the many businesses the family she married into owns. Seven years ago it went into a slide and she was asked to look into it. Thiagarajan agreed, on two conditions. She would work from home (“flexi time for kids”) and she would use only organic methods. Eyebrows went up and she was warned: crop production would fall, viability would vanish. “I continued, in the face of opposition,” she said. “I would abandon the enterprise, but wouldn’t poison the soil.”

A psychology major from a Chennai college, she wasn’t exactly an expert on agriculture. “I was always eco-inclined,” she said, having been raised in a home where kids helped the gardener water and weed and watched cows nurse frisky calves. “Affinity to nature is caught through participation,” is her gyan. But growing coffee commercially, that’s another cup of er, coffee, isn’t it?

Ignorance about coffee planting was in some ways, bliss, she said. “I began to read. Our elders knew that agriculture is not just earth and compost. They knew that planetary movements influence plants. Soil, air and the seasons are inter-connected. Our almanac gives us a planting calendar, so we can follow the rhythms of nature.” Eco-systems determine the health of the crop. “I came across Steiner’s bio-dynamic preps, something he learned from our agri practices.” She re-introduced those systems, scientifically. It was faith in a forsaken system matched by faith in her ability to pull it through – guts really, big time.

Thiagarajan talks of preparing manure in a cow-horn (horn is an organ of digestion), of the need for regular soil testing and keeping track of micro and macro organisms, “abundant in our acreage.” She details the process — from picking ripe berries to packing the powder, and the need for hygiene. “Too much rain will bring mould; too much dryness will reduce weight and taste.” For a non-drinker, that’s quite a learning achievement. “I’m learning to appreciate good coffee,” she said.

In 2004, a dry year, she entered her berries in the competition. Production had come down, the berries looked small. “But I was told the taste would be intense.” The award is given for moisture content, taste and pure smell (shouldn’t be musty or oily), after several rounds of cupping at regional and national levels. An international jury picks the winners. “I was thrilled to read the announcements in the papers. My methods had been validated.”

After running it single-handedly, she’s “thinking of moving to a small office close by. To get into the market, I sold green beans. Now my coffee is user-friendly. It’s probably the highest elevation variety. In the rare atmosphere, the beans are heavier, the taste subtle.”

She sees a good market for coffee in India. Certainly Balmaadi’s, which expert coffee cupper Sunalini Menon has described as “full bodied, with sweet acidic notes, in a swirl of citrus hues and caramel undertones.” Think orange marmalade, Thiagarajan suggested. “There’s awareness for organic products. People are willing to pay a premium.” She proposes a trend. “You visit coffee estates and fall in love with the clean air, and of course, the organic brew. You want the experience of picking the beans and watching the processing. Call it a coffee break.”

Labour crunch is a big worry. “Coffee prices should match production, to stop labour exodus,” she said. “We want to pay them well, take care of their families.” With so little manpower, coffee growers can’t be running (or driving on those impassable approach roads) to government officials for information, weather insurance, schemes. “They should come to us. We deserve all the encouragement they can give us.”

Mechanisation is an answer. Sun-dried will now be blow-dried. The good old bite test can go hand-in-hand with using the moisture meter. “Mix of ancient methods and modern technology, the best of both practices,” she said. Like a fine blend of arabica and robusta or peaberry and chicory. Put together with care, it makes for great coffee.

GEETA PADMANABHAN

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