How a small shift in tea policy is transforming communities on the Turkish Black Sea coast
Gulten draws on her cigarette and leans back into the near-vertical tea bushels. Her neat rows are among thousands carved like topiary into the steep contours of the valley. Across this eastern corner of the Turkish Black Sea, mountain sides are dotted with white specks of tea sacks, each one marking the otherwise camouflaged presence of a picker.
“I can’t help,” she exhales through smoke, “but wonder who will do this when I’m gone.”
Gulten, proud custodian of her family land, has always sold her tea to Çaykur, the state-owned tea giant whose billowing black chimneys tower as a second minaret in most Black Sea towns. Approximately half of Turkey’s tea passes through a Çaykur factory. The company has historically offered a reliable and moderately comfortable income from tea, which drove Gulten’s parents, among hundreds of thousands of others, to take up growing in the 1970s.
However, over the last decade the government has introduced a daily limit on tea purchased by Çaykur per farmer. Any excess tea must be slung back into the seller’s pick-up truck and sold for significantly less to nearby private factories.
It takes just a small shift in government policy to transform a community beyond recognition. No more so than in agriculture, where there exist few degrees of separation between the policymaker’s pen and the smallholder farmer’s income.
The repercussions of Çaykur’s tea limit are felt in every crevice of the Black Sea valleys, above all for women — who traditionally lead tea picking activities.
Gulten must now decide how to split her tea between Çaykur and the private factories. Whatever she decides, an income cut is inevitable at a time least affordable: income earned during harvest season must support families across the year, at a time when annual inflation nears 80%.
If she decides to sell all her tea to Çaykur, she must limit tea picked each day to meet the quota, and so pick tea for more days (it must be sold fresh), and spend more money on wages, food and accommodation for contracted pickers.
Alternatively, Gulten could divide tea picked each day between Çaykur and the private factories. By harvesting in as few days as possible, Gulten would spend far less on contracted pickers. However, with a shrug she explains that the long detour that her son would have to take to drive to both factories is too expensive to justify.
Instead, Gulten’s son drives his pick-up straight past Çaykur to the private factory. He returns a few hours later with less than ¾ of the income that would have been offered by Çaykur. The lost income is outweighed by fewer days harvesting. This, the family agree, is the most they could hope to earn from tea these days.
When selling privately, incomes are not only low but precarious. On the other side of the fog-capped Kackar mountains, Zeynep and her family of eight lost a large portion of their annual income when the private factory they sold to closed down.
Power in this market lies firmly in the hands of the private factories, as is often the case in markets involving smallholder farmers. Pickers’ choice of factory is largely based on location rather than price, meaning factories face few incentives to offer higher prices. Pickers who choose to split their tea across Çaykur and private factories hold less clout than if they were to sell all their tea to the same factory as their divided tea represents a smaller fraction of the factory’s total. However, the real danger, as Zeynep points out, comes from the fact that families with few savings and less versatile land have no choice but to accept the going rate.
Faced with these prospects, few young women plan to stay in the sector. “If I don’t see the returns for my labour, it’s not for me,” Gulten’s daughter-in-law, Seher, explains to her in a heated exchange. Seher now runs a restaurant which makes up the family’s main source of income. Zeynep and her sisters dryly explain their frustrations at the sector through a local expression: ‘If you educate girls you’ll have to pay for tea pickers’. Zeynep is now pursuing a PhD in Ankara.
Leaving is not an easy option. Training to work in other sectors requires money and time. In theory this could be funded by selling land. However, Emin, a larger landowner based in Rize, explains that land sales are uncommon due to a sense of familial obligation and respect.
For landowning families able to find employment elsewhere, reluctance to sell land means that families often recruit contractors to pick up the tea scissors in their absence. Contractors receive a portion of tea revenue while landowners take the remainder to cover costs and top up their income. Wages on the field are further depressed as they are divided across more people.
Emerging from this is an underclass of poorly paid labourers with little job security, whose employers often have little time nor incentive to manage the farms effectively.
Nurhayat, who picks a field wedged between a roadside café and a mosque, is one such contractor. Receiving only half the tea revenue of the land she farms, the price reduction under the quota system hits Nurhayat and her husband much harder than those who own their land. And without possession of a tea license — a legal right to sell the tea farmed from a particular land which serves as proof of employment — she is not entitled to the state pension scheme.
Dato, a Georgian migrant that Gulten employs, faces the additional obstacle of the three-month limit to temporary work visas. This year he has chosen to pay the substantial fine for outstaying his permit as his remaining income still outweighs the wages available back home.
As long as contractors have no alternative, the mound of lush green leaves waiting to be shovelled into the factory conveyer belt will not shrink. Private factories will face few repercussions of lower prices, and pickers will be increasingly poorly paid.
Meanwhile, when tea becomes merely pocket money for landowners, the incentive to efficiently navigate the private-public system falters. In Rize, where factories cluster closely around the suburbs of the hometown of President Erdogan, a driver unloads his tea into the private drop-off under the shadow of the neighbouring Çaykur chimney. He shrugs at the option of splitting his tea between the two. He wants his trip to be as short as possible; income is less important.
In light of this, a policy to shift tea production towards the private sector seems somewhat at odds with Turkey’s high tea tariffs: Turks are left with neither secure jobs nor cheap foreign tea. The worst of both worlds — unless you own a private tea factory.
The future is not necessarily bleak. Esin is a manager at the Hopa Tea Cooperative, a short drive from the Georgian border and far from the private clusters of Rize. Esin explains that the cooperative buys tea from members at the same price as Çaykur. By selling through local markets and schools, the cooperative can sell at supermarket prices without the associated marketing and middleman costs. If sufficiently large, cooperatives can also play a powerful competitive role in pressuring private factories to offer higher prices to farmers. Whilst an attractive proposition, successful cooperatives need more than fertile soil to flourish. Significant investment is required from either committed landowners or governments — neither of which are in abundance around the Black Sea.
Another option is for producers to receive part of their payment from private factories in the form of packaged tea which can then be resold on local markets. Unfortunately for smaller producers, selling tea to neighbours is about as lucrative as selling ice cubes in Antarctica. Those who benefit must own sufficient land to justify the hassle of exporting further afield.
Neither the cooperative nor payment in kind is available to contractors such as Nurhayat or Dato, who rely on their landowning employer to choose where to sell their tea. Whilst some savvy producers such as Esin exist, shrewdly navigating the new tea economy to maintain living standards, the new status quo seems to be a class of landowners without the time or financial interest to ‘beat the system’ alongside a class of contractors without the power to do so.
If anyone is to benefit from the new tea economy, perhaps it is Turkish Airlines. Sami, sat at a roadside café overlooking Nurhayat’s tea field and a mosque, spends most the year working in Istanbul and comes to the Black Sea for the summer to harvest his small farm. He earns just enough to cover his plane ticket.
This piece was written based on the research and filming for the documentary ‘Harvesting Turkey’s Tea’ by Sheida Kiran which is available on BBC iPlayer here.