Turkey’s farmers battle with soaring costs and mounting debt

For thousands of years, the region around Antakya, in Turkey’s southern Hatay province, has been a breadbasket of great civilisations. The Roman mosaics in the city’s museums depict olives and grapes grown in the rich red soil and verdant hills around Antioch, as it was known in biblical times.

But those who work the land today are struggling, like many of the half a million farmers across Turkey. A collapse in the value of the Turkish lira over the past 12 months has combined with a surge in global commodity prices to vastly increase their input costs.

“This is the hardest time I’ve seen,” said Mehmet Muzaffer Okay, the head of Antakya’s chamber of agriculture, who has worked at the industry body for around three decades as well as growing wheat, peppers and olives.

Farming remains a mainstay of the Turkish economy, generating close to 7 per cent of gross domestic product and Hatay is the top producer of a string of Turkey’s household staples, including chard, parsley and oranges. But Okay said that his association’s 25,000 members were facing rising costs and growing indebtedness. “Their resistance is wearing thin.” 

Rocketing agricultural production costs are a driver of Turkey’s precipitous rise in food prices, which increased at an annual rate of 70 per cent in March, according to official data. April figures released this week were expected to show that headline consumer price inflation — encompassing energy, transport, clothing and other costs as well as food — reached around 68 per cent year on year, according to a Reuters survey of economists.

From his farm near the Syrian border, where rows of pale onions peek through the terracotta earth, Mahmut Çam explained the real-world impact of the plunge in the currency. A year ago, it cost him around 3,000 lira to fill up his five tractors with diesel. Now the price tag is close to TL13,000. He has also witnessed a fourfold rise in the cost of fertiliser and pesticides.

“When these things are cheap, we can sell our products at a cheap price and our people can have affordable food,” said Çam, who also grows potatoes. “When they are expensive, production will be lower and food will be more pricey.” 

Though food prices have risen sharply, producers often find themselves squeezed by supermarkets that are under pressure from the government to keep down prices and middle men who sometimes exploit them.

While the country’s agricultural subsidies have long been criticised by institutions such as the OECD for distorting the market, farmers themselves want more, not less, help to counteract rising input costs.

On the farm where he grows corn and cotton, Nesim Koç said that the diesel payments he got from the government were enough to run his tractors for just a few days of the year. “Farmers are like the mother of the nation, feeding its people,” he said. “They need to give us more support.” 

Rising costs have shone a light on the deeper, structural problems within the Turkish agricultural sector. Luz Berania Díaz Ríos, a senior agribusiness specialist at the World Bank, said that while farming remained an important part of the country’s economy, it made only “modest gains” in productivity over the past decade and a half.

Though output grew at an average of 3 per cent a year between 2007 and 2016, that growth was “largely due to input intensification — for example more fertilisers, more pesticides — rather than resulting from significant efficiency gains”, she said.

Díaz Ríos called for technological improvements such as more modern greenhouses with efficient ventilation and irrigation systems — as well as measures to confront climate change, which will pose a big challenge in the years ahead.

Despite its problems, Turkey has “huge” agricultural potential, according to Gökhan Özertan, an agricultural economist at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University, pointing out that it remains in the global top 10 for 50 agricultural products, including figs, cherries, lentils, beans and hazelnuts.

But the sector needs wholesale reform to tackle problems that date back decades, he argues. A good place to start, according to Özertan, would be improving the technical knowhow of Turkish farmers through education and overhauling co-operatives that can help farmers on multiple fronts from finance to marketing. Better data collection was also needed, he said.

“The [way the] sector is run has lots of problems,” he said. “In the end, the farmers are not happy, consumers are not happy. No one is happy.”

Okay, the chamber of agriculture chief, said that some in Hatay had turned their hands to growing exotic fruits for export. “They have started producing avocados, kiwis, dragon fruits — things I’d never even heard of — to sell abroad,” he said.

Others, meanwhile, have dropped out altogether. The average age of farmers in Turkey is on the rise as parents who work the land struggle to persuade their children to follow in their footsteps.

Koç, who has driven a tractor since the age of 10, said his four daughters were “not interested in the soil”. He is unsure how long he himself will continue. “I was born a farmer,” said the 52-year-old. “I hope I also die as one. But we will have to see.”