In a region on Turkey’s eastern Black Sea coast, around 75% of the world’s hazelnuts are grown. Throughout August, thousands of migrant workers harvest the nut. It’s a hard job under challenging conditions and offers increasingly diminishing returns for both workers and owners.
Millions of hazelnut trees cover the valleys of Ordu and Giresun provinces. Many of the trees grow on the sides of treacherous ravines, making harvesting hazelnuts hard and often dangerous work.
Pickers work seven days a week, 11 hours a day, for about $300 for the monthlong season.
Iskender, who did not want to give his full name, started picking at 15 years old. Now 30, he is in charge of a group of pickers.
“We come here to work in a field for 15 days, and then pack everything and travel up the valley to higher villages and work another 15 days,” he said, taking a break from the arduous work.
“But we do this because of necessity,” he said. “If you are not obliged to do this, it is a misery that no one can stand.”
Like most pickers, Iskender made the 700-kilometer journey from Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish region.
There are few jobs in the region, which has been economically devastated by the Turkish army’s decadeslong war against a Kurdish insurgency.
Iskender’s mother, Mediha, works with her son. Like tens of thousands of others, mother and son were forced to evacuate their village by security forces, losing not only their home but livelihood.
“In the past, we used to do agriculture. We used to keep vineyards. We had our own work. We herded animals,”Mediha explained. “But we were left without anything, and out of necessity, we had to come here. And we work here like slaves. There is nothing we can achieve. We would be happy to go back to our village.”
Iskender, Mediha and the other pickers sleep in a cattle shed for the 30-day harvest. Most migrants are forced to stay in state-run camps.
Authorities don’t allow access to the camps, which have been criticized by monitoring groups for their poor condition. Official signs outside and inside the camps warn about the illegality of underage workers, though many working in the field appear to be under the legal age of 16.
Many hazelnut field owners and workers are reluctant to talk about conditions.
‘No one is making money’
Field owner Hilmi Uzunlar, Iskender and Mediha’s boss, said the days of families planning weddings and other significant financial outlays around the bounty of the hazelnut harvest are long gone.
He said years of falling prices due to growing competition and increasing vagaries of climate mean no one is making money.
“The sale of hazelnuts only covers the expenses for the workers, fertilizers, maintaining the trees,” Uzunlar said. “We do the harvest, then sell the nuts, and we only break even. After that, we go back to our other jobs to provide for our families.”
Earlier this month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stepped in at the last minute to announce an increase in the price that hazelnut producers will receive. His family roots are in the Black Sea Region, which is also a crucial electoral power base.
Uzunlar grudgingly welcomed the intervention, but said it will do little to change the economics of hazelnut cultivation.
“Under these conditions, it is too obvious that the hazelnut has no future,” he said.
Pressure on growers like Uzunlar is set to grow. Hazelnut buyers are seeking alternative producers to reduce their heavy dependence on Turkey.
In the past decade, the U.S. state of Oregon, using the latest technology, has doubled hazelnut production to 47,000 tons and is seeking to double output by 2025.
Turkey’s neighbor, Georgia, along with some European countries, is also expanding production. But, Turkey still dwarfs its competitors in output.
Kadir Engin, head of the Ordu Industrialists and Businessmen Association, said Turkish nuts also are superior in quality to most of its competitors.
Engin is credited in persuading Erdogan to increase this year’s price. But he warns that the region will struggle to end the current economic hardships faced by hazelnut producers.
“We can’t get efficient productivity from the old fields because we can’t use modern agricultural production,” he said. “And this causes much higher costs, as the hazelnut is picked from the branches, not from the ground.”
Engin warned that little will change, with the trees densely planted and preventing mechanized harvesting.
“There is no modern technology in producing or harvesting hazelnuts from aged, old trees,” he said. “These hazelnuts you see are from trees the same age as me — 70, 80 years old. They should be renewed. The fields should be younger.”
Changing climatic patterns could also pose a threat. Days before the harvest, the region was deluged by rain that caused widespread flooding. A week later, much of the crop would be lost, an event that has happened in recent years.
Such threats to production, analysts warn, will probably expedite hazelnut buyers’ efforts to diversify dependency on Turkey’s Ordu province.
A life without hazelnuts
Iskender dreams of a life that does not depend on hazelnuts.
“If I get a normal job with a minimum wage, I won’t come back here next year. It would be enough for me to stay at my home, to be with my kids,” he said.
But for he and Mediha, weeks of toil remain. After harvesting the hazelnuts, they will move on to central Turkey for the potato season. Iskender said it will be some time before he sees his three young children again.