Small farms in Turkey are threatening productivity in the agricultural sector and provide a meagre living for workers in this sector. Government policies have begun to change this for the better, but more needs to be done.
Turkey is the world’s seventh-largest agricultural producer. Nearly 39 million hectares of cultivated land quilt the landscape, producing hazelnuts, cherries and figs, as well as wheat and barley. But the cliché of rolling fields is hardly applicable, since most farms are small family concerns covering areas of less than six hectares.
And in this case, small is not better. Smaller farms tend to be less efficient and less productive. Two-thirds of agricultural land in Turkey is splintered into parcels of less than five hectares, many of which operate at subsistence level. More worrying is that these small farms are getting even smaller.
A vicious cycle has been set in motion. According to the OECD, fragmentation of farmland is the main problem facing Turkish agriculture today. As the country’s single largest sector, employing a quarter of the working population, the impact could be significant. Largely to blame are the country’s inheritance laws, which stipulate that 25% of a deceased landowner’s property should pass to their spouse, with the rest divided among the children. The result of this process after a few generations is clear.
The downward spiral of poor performance is made worse by reliance on old technologies. Draught animals are used for nearly 12% of ploughing, and more than half of combine harvesters are over 10 years old. The OECD estimates that the average farm in Turkey achieves only 30% of its potential productivity. Compared with other OECD countries, rural communities in Turkey are larger and more dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods. In 2009, the government’s statistical agency TurkStat estimated that 31% of the population lived in rural communities of 20,000 residents or less and that 63% of them worked in agriculture. With such a large rural population, Turkey has every interest in improving the efficiency of its agricultural sector.
But the problems it faces are manifold. Workers are generally poorly educated and low-skilled: as much as 15% of agricultural labourers are illiterate and only 78% have primary education. A high rate of hidden unemployment has driven many young people to seek work in the cities. Farming co-operatives and producers’ unions lack organisation, and scattered settlements make the transportation of goods difficult and limit access to services.
Solving these problems is a difficult challenge, in part because 20% to 30% of agricultural land is unregistered. When Turkey undertook major policy reform in 2001, with the Agricultural Reform Implementation Project (ARIP), the establishment of a national land registry in rural areas was hindered by the inability of many farmers to prove ownership of their lands or produce documentation relating to legal disputes over possession. The issue is still unresolved.
Earlier in 2012, Semsi Bayrakter, head of the Union of Turkish Chambers of Agriculture, said that nearly half of Turkey’s 5.2 million farmers were unregistered–a hole that the government is anxious to plug. Indeed, a land registry system is one of the key criteria for full EU membership.
But some progress is being made. Turkey has made impressive strides in efficiency thanks to a revision of inheritance laws and rural development policies. In the first four years following the adoption of the ARIP, the efficiency of agriculture is estimated to have increased from 32% to 45%.
Such improvements, however, have been counterbalanced by distortions arising from government subsidies. Between 1986 and 1988, the share of producer support in gross farm receipts stood at 20%. From 2009 to 2011, that percentage rose to 25%, higher than the OECD average. Progress in agricultural policy reform towards encouraging a more competitive agriculture system has slowed down in recent years; 91% of the support to producers is provided in the form of support based on commodity output, which is potentially the most production–and trade–distorting, and an inefficient way to transfer income support to farmers. Policies which are more stable and targeted are necessary if the sector is to realise its full potential. But the government should also cover new ground and transform state trading enterprises and agricultural sales co-operatives into real commercial ventures. Only then might Turkish agriculture enter a new season so we can finally see those rolling fields.
References and recommended sources
OECD (2011), Evaluation of Agricultural Policy Reforms in Turkey, OECD, Paris.
OECD (2011), Turkey–Agricultural Policy Monitoring and Evaluation, OECD, Paris.
"Turkey may face hunger without aid in agriculture” in Hurriyet Daily News, 9 January 2012
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By Dimitris Diakosavvas, Senior Economist, Trade and Agriculture Directorate, OECD
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