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An Organic Life: Cem Birder On Rural Living And Toprak Ana
Rhiannon Davies / March 06, 2014
Many people dream of quitting their city life and moving to the countryside, but few make this dream a reality. Of those that do, even fewer still are able to achieve a success story – often finding the dream does not quite match the hardships of reality. That’s why it’s always inspiring to meet someone who has pulled it off.
We first learned about Cem Birder through his articles on organic ideals and rural life and soon discovered his website, Toprak Ana. Although he has a background in civil engineering, his last job in Istanbul was working as the General Manager for the Buğday Association, which is a non-profit NGO that supports ecological living. With them, he helped to found the first organic markets in Istanbul back in 2006. It was working there that he met many small scale organic farmers and had the idea to found Toprak Ana.
Toprak Ana (meaning Mother Earth) is a website that allows customers to purchase produce directly from local farmers. You can search by region or by produce, and place your order directly with the farmer. Cem told us he started Toprak Ana to promote small farmers who are at risk of becoming extinct, often because they are unable to promote themselves, and that the advantages were threefold:
* It promotes the name of the farmers.
* There is a countrywide agreement with the cargo company – meaning affordable rates that would be unachievable for farmers working on their own.
* Customers feel more comfortable about the origins of their purchases – they can directly call and speak to the farmers themselves.
He told us that, “This is not just an economic problem, but a social one too. By promoting the farmers, we are also respecting the farmers, something that is lost in a world built on brands. I know every one of the farmers whose produce we sell on Toprak Ana. What’s important for me is that their personality, philosophy and lifestyle.”
The UN have designated 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming which is “an effort to highlight the potential family farmers have to eradicate hunger, preserve natural resources and promote sustainable development.”
We asked about his own experiences of life in a mountain village close to Çanakkale. “I started farming five years ago, and asked everyone for help – it’s like a foreign language, you really need to practice and to read. I use traditional organic agricultural methods, which I believe will all return but we need new laws, there’s currently no encouragement for small farmers.”
Making use of legal loopholes, Cem has succeeded in forming a village co-operative which now produces and sells salça, pekmez, bread and tarhana. “It took three years to get permission because there are no clear laws that allow villagers to produce and sell these products, only big factories and corporations. We have renovated a building and now are able to produce traditionally, using wood fires for example. We’ve had to standardize production methods but all the village people came together to agree on them. We’ve also had to strike a balance between using traditional methods and meeting modern hygiene standards but I believe we have achieved it in a way that still provides delicious results.”
In Cem’s village they have also reconstructed a demolished building to be used as a ‘Village House,’ which serves as a library for the children, a meeting hall and a local cinema. “Everyone always talks about rural, sustainable development in economic terms, but you need to consider the social as well. In the countryside, young people just dream of going to the big city, but the reality is not as charming as they hope. If you supply money they will just go there quicker, but if you develop social and cultural possibilities locally you can help them to love their home.”
Cem hopes that what he has achieved in his village can become a model for others, but it wasn’t always this easy. “Although on first meeting, Turkish village people are some of the friendliest you will meet anywhere, it’s not always easy for them to accept newcomers.” He has seen many city people fail in their rural enterprises. “Often people think they know everything. They buy their land and plant too fast, so they make mistakes. They use their knowledge from the city rather than analysing the geography.” There are also social pitfalls; “They tend to have a lot of money and so pay more than is needed, which can break social codes. They sometimes end up turning village psychology into that of a city.”
We asked him what advice he would give city dwellers who have this dream. “Come without any prejudgements and stay for a year to just watch and understand. Over hundreds of years, the local people have learned how to live efficiently, without money, and it’s vital that we learn from them.”
To buy local organic products direct from the farmers visit: http://www.toprakana.com.tr; To keep up with their work, via their blog, visit: http://www.toprakana.org. (Please be aware, both website are currently only available in Turkish.)