Turkish agriculture will be forced to change

POLATLI, Turkey (Reuters) – Cetin Akyar’s calloused hands pass over a string of black prayer beads as traders at the Polatli Commodity Exchange determine the price for his harvest of nine-and-a-half tonnes of wheat. Bids for other red hard wheat rise to 0.371 lira (0.196 euros) per kilogram and stop. «That’s nothing. There’s no life in Turkish agriculture,» says Akyar with a pained smile. «I would leave if I could find another job that could feed my family,» he says. In a country where farming employs nearly a third of the population, Turkey’s attempts to overhaul its agricultural sector in time to receive European Union funds are coming down hard on farmers and their families, threatening to upset an already uneasy balance between Turkey’s villages and cities. «The structure of the agriculture sector is not harmonized with EU countries,» said Halil Agah of the World Bank’s Ankara office. «There is a need for radical change in a short time.» By next year, Turkey is expected to have in place a system to distribute a total of 9 billion to 10 billion euros ($11.5 billion to $12.7 billion) worth of European Union support to state agencies and farmers. For farmers that means old subsidies for seeds, fertilizer, and tractor fuel have been removed, making the government responsible for only $2 billion of funds, as opposed to the $6 billion that the old system cost government coffers. According to independent estimates, the agricultural reforms will shrink the industry by as much as 40 percent, while 2 to 4 million Turks will have to find other jobs. That would represent the largest demographic shift in the country since the 1980s and 1990s when between 357,000 and one million Kurdish villagers were displaced during violence between the Turkish military and the outlawed separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In Turkey, city dwellers trace many problems to tensions with newly arrived poor and uneducated villagers and there are fears that a fresh influx could exacerbate these strains. «If (migration) goes at the same speed, crime will increase if you have many people who are not employed, and social and cultural cohesion can break down,» said Ayse Gedik, professor of city and regional planning at the Middle East Technical University. Traditions die hard On his farm in Omerlerkoy, 20 km (12 miles) from the wheat bourse in Polatli in central Turkey, Akyar squirts milk from six cows into a bucket. Although his main crops are wheat, sugar beet and onions, he bought the cows with state support last year to supplement a dwindling income after authorities enforced beet quotas. «I’m not even going to plant beets next year, it’s not worth it,» he said. As Turkey, which began EU entry talks last year, tries to harmonize its sector with EU standards, it has introduced reforms to make farming more competitive, like bringing in quotas on overfarmed crops. But not all farmers are giving up their crops easily. Despite World Bank-supported efforts to reduce hazelnut farming by 100,000 hectares through cash incentives, only 885 hectares have been converted for other crops. Turkey’s Black Sea region produces most of the world’s hazelnuts. «It’s not easy to change farmers’ production habits,» said Agah. In September, the government agreed to borrow $400 million from international banks to buy up hazelnuts to appease farmers, who had been protesting the crop’s low prices. Farmers have also resisted reforms aimed at consolidating fragmented farm lands, a throwback to a decades-old tradition that saw fathers divide their land between sons and daughters. Akyar’s neighbor, Mehmet Sari, has been told that he and his 10 relatives, all of whom plough the same field, must register their land in the name of a single owner to gain EU aid. «They want us to show that we have rights to the field but we can’t agree with each other, so we get no support,» said Sari. «If I don’t register and don’t get support can I still keep on farming?» he asked, screwing his wizened eyes against the sun. Outside the village mosque, the young and old men of Omerlerkoy gather before Friday prayers. Yunus Altin, 40, says he has doubts about staying in an industry which he believes has no future. He has sent his son out of the village to become a soldier and make a living. «If it gets much worse, I’m going to sell out. I’m not lying, I’m going to sell out and get out of here,» he says. Altin says he will follow the path of other villagers who have gone to Eskisehir, some 110 km (70 miles) from Polatli. Villagers said that over the past five years over half of the original population of 2,000 people have left for cities. «Another sector absorbs these people. They are going to big cities without skills, education, or they are going into the service industry,» said Agah.