From her office window in Mardin, a city in southeastern Turkey, chef Ebru Baybara Demir gazes out over the arid plains of upper Mesopotamia, a flat gold-and-green expanse stretching beyond the horizon to the Syrian border just 20 miles (32 kilometers) away.
“This is where agriculture — and gastronomy — was born,” says Demir, who grew up in Mardin and owns Cercis Murat Konağı, a well-known restaurant specializing in traditional local dishes.
Wheat, lentils, chickpeas and other crops have been cultivated here since the beginning of a global societal transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers some 10,000 years ago. Today, Turkey is the seventh largest agricultural producer in the world, with more than 20% of its working population employed in the sector.
But things aren’t going so well for farmers in the Mardin area. “Because of climate change, people can’t make a living from farming anymore and are starting to leave the land,” Demir says.
The region’s groundwater levels have plummeted over the past two decades due to increasing overall drought conditions, while unusually heavy rains too close to the harvest season wiped out 2018’s lentil crop and 60% of the wheat, Demir says. Turkey’s agricultural policies have meanwhile left farmers dependent on soil-depleting chemical fertilizers, energy-intensive irrigation and costly commercial seeds.
“I’m a chef, and I realized if I want to still be working as a chef in 10 years, food must become more sustainable,” Demir says. A solution, she thought, might lie in the region’s long agricultural history and the traditional knowledge preserved by its small-scale subsistence farmers. That idea led to the Living Soil, Local Seed initiative, one of her numerous social-entrepreneurship projects providing livelihoods for local Turkish women and Syrian refugees living in the area. This one has an additional aim: to help climate-proof agriculture in Turkey — and beyond — by looking to the past.
Rediscovering Native Seeds
“Agriculture is one of the most sensitive sectors to climate change, which affects both the quality and quantity of yields, but diversifying crops can help increase resilience,” says Ekrem Yazıcı, deputy chief of the Joint Forestry and Timber Section of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), one of the supporters of Demir’s initiative. Climate change has been shown, for example, to increase the range and activity of agricultural pests. “If you have a monoculture and a pest comes in, you will lose your whole crop, which can be a disaster for farming families,” Yazıcı explains. A more ecologically complex system, with a range of different plants, is better able to withstand damaging insects, diseases and drought. But global agriculture has become increasingly homogeneous.
Historically, people planted around 6,000 different crops, but today more than 60% of crop production by weight comes from just nine plants, Yazıcı says.
Working with a small team of female agricultural engineers, Demir set out to rediscover some of the native seeds of Mesopotamia, traveling around the Mardin province that surrounds the city of the same name.
“We visited around 60 villages … places far from the city center, where communication was limited, transportation difficult and cultivation still carried out in traditional ways,” says organic farming technician Rengin Amak Yılmaz, who Demir also hired to work on the project. “People invited us into their homes and told us how they learned from their ancestors to grow local seeds without irrigation and using animal manure instead of artificial fertilizers.”
“When we started to train the Syrian women, we realized that they actually had more to teach us.” – Ebru Baybara Demir
These village expeditions garnered about 2 tons (1.8 metric tons) of five varieties of native wheat, which the team planned to train an initial group of 70 female small-scale farmers — half of them Turkish and half of them Syrian — to plant and harvest using sustainable techniques as part of Living Soil, Local Seed.
“When we started to train the Syrian women, we realized that they actually had more to teach us,” says Demir. “Syrian agriculture was not as developed as it is in Turkey, so they still know those ancient ways that are so important now.”
Turkey is hosting more than 3.5 million people who fled war-torn Syria — about 70% of them women and children —with nearly 100,000 of the refugees living in Mardin province alone. The province has a total population of just 800,000 and high levels of unemployment.
“We had a field that wasn’t producing anything, and one of the Syrian women told us how we could make the soil get better,” Demir recalls. The 66-year-old woman, Şemse, explained that the field should be left to lie fallow for a season, then planted with chickpeas, which add nitrogen back to barren soil, before trying to grow the wheat. Şemse also showed the team how to create water traps — using, in her modern interpretation, yogurt buckets filled with water and placed in holes in the ground, with wheat seeds scattered around their edges — to attract and kill crop-destroying bugs.
Finding the land needed to scale up production proved another challenge. Local commercial farmers were initially reluctant to partner with Demir because the hybrid seeds they are accustomed to using can yield more than twice as much per acre as her local varieties. “But hybrids have to be bought every year [and] they require water and electricity and fertilizers and pesticides; after paying for all those inputs, the farmers are actually earning less,” Demir says. “When they saw our success, they started realizing it makes sense to use local seeds.”
Within two years, the project that started with 70 women planting sorgül, an ancient wheat variety, on 2.5 acres (1 hectare) of land belonging to five commercial farmers, has grown to employ 350 women working 160 acres (65 hectares) of land owned by 16 farmers. The harvest this past June yielded 485 tons (440 metric tons) of wheat that will be replanted to continue to increase the stock of native seeds. Demir hopes it is a model that can be applied to other cities in Turkey and around the world.
“This knowledge isn’t just valuable for us,” she says. “People all over the world need to relearn how to do agriculture in a more sustainable way.”