Rural areas in Turkey are losing their soil productivity to harmful agriculture practices and their population to large urban areas. In response to this Durukan is localizing proven regenerative farming techniques, recruiting teams of local farmers and young individuals to own the production and regeneration processes and connecting them to alternative markets and supply-chains. In doing so, he is promoting an agriculture that not only enriches the soil, but also makes village communities attractive and viable living environments, reshaping rural life in Turkey.
The New Idea
Durukan is bringing a fresh approach to farming and rural life in Turkey by combining regenerative farming with the human capital of youth and farmers and connecting them to innovative market models. The result is a mutually enriching human and nature relationship and sustainable and productive rural agricultural communities.
Durukan’s organization Anatolian Grasslands is enabling the spread of regenerative agriculture techniques with a triple focus on human, environmental and economic elements and building a rich multi stakeholder ecosystem including big influential farming organisations, government bodies, producers and consumers which is enabling both a top down and bottom up adoption.
He is fostering a grassroots movement of ‘regenerative farming entrepreneurs’ from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, including traditional rural farmers and a growing segment of youth who are reverse migrating from urban to rural. They are also unlocking opportunities at advanced levels of the value chain by directly linking traditional farmers to urban conscious consumers. This is resulting in a number of novel win–win outcomes for all groups and transforms the scenario from a classic tragedy of the commons to instilling a genuine collective responsibility for Turkey’s land fertility, bringing to life a new paradigm for the agricultural sector that is finally shifting practices from degenerative to regenerative.
Turkey’s demographic, environmental and economic transformation over the past 3 decades has been one of the world’s most dramatic.
Years of neglecting soil erosion and harmful agriculture practices have depleted the soil across the country, making it harder and harder to depend on agriculture to earn a living. Turkey is a country that faces high levels of erosion, with 743 tons of fertile soil perishing per year and 59% of all agricultural land, 64% of pastures and 54% of forestlands being subjected to soil erosion.
This transformation has resulted in a doubling of Turkey’s urban population and an increase from 25 percent in 1975 to over 75 percent today. This has also resulted in rural areas being completely left behind and suffering from a crisis of productivity with environmental, economic and social dimensions. Agriculture remains the major source of employment in rural areas (making up over 70 percent) but is becoming decreasingly attractive and productive, especially for younger generations.
Socially, rural areas have suffered terribly from the high urban migration where there are more job opportunities, higher standards of living, and better education opportunities for children. Despite a far greater urban population, currently the gap is so drastic that there is a higher number of people living in poverty in rural areas and the rural poverty rate is 35% compared to 22% in cities.
The rush to modernize agriculture has also put increasing pressure on farmers to use harmful chemicals and practices and has led to disempowerment and dehumanization of producers who are struggling to stay profitable but with a chronic lack of information in Turkish and access to alternative and innovative farming techniques. Lack of trust of consumers in food is at an all time low and current solutions fall short in many terms.
Alongside the modernization surge there is also a co-existing counter-movement to return to old practices in harmony with nature and a growing group of people who have become disillusioned with life in Turkey’s polluted, chaotic and overcrowded cities. In 2015, 400,000 people left Istanbul and the government is bringing in new financial incentives to encourage under 30s to move back to their villages. Many of those moving in the ‘opposite direction’ to start idealistic new lives and enterprises in rural areas do not appreciate the harsh realities and without being given the right skills, tools and community to ensure their endeavors are productive. Urban consumers are also desperate for alternatives to the status quo and village farm products and food communities who want a better understanding of where their food came from are on the rise in cities all over Turkey.
Regenerative agriculture moves way beyond ‘just’ sustainability and represents a fundamental shift in our culture’s relationship to nature. It comprises of a plethora of innovative techniques that rebuild soil and, in the process, sequester carbon (put it back into the soil). The method ensures bare soil is never exposed, and grazes livestock in ways that mimic animals in nature.
Durukan’s strategy to enable widespread adoption of this vision is based on 3 complementary pillars: firstly to spread regenerative farming techniques, secondly to cultivate new farming communities which act as flagships and laboratories for agricultural innovation and as a supply of produce which is created in harmony with nature. Finally he works on the other side to create demand, primarily in urban centers for regenerative produce and then connect this new consumer market directly to the farms.
Firstly, Anatolian Grasslands has a demo site in Western coastal Turkey, which acts as a both a proof of concept and as a laboratory for agricultural innovation. Following their agricultural and farming practices closely, they are able to show clear and convincing evidence of their methods to others. At this site Durukan’s young and dynamic team of farmers and entrepreneurs ‘practice what they preach’, they live and work alongside the local villagers and run a number of pilot projects including social businesses selling and marketing regenerative products. They offer intensive retreats and consultancies on regenerative agriculture, agricultural entrepreneurship and rural life skills. These retreats are mostly demanded by urban youth who shows great interest in ‘moving forward’ to rural to practice regenerative farming methods.
Currently, 150 young people and farmers have been part of peer to peer network learning groups, who share methodologies and learnings and support each other in setting up their own farms and entrepreneurial initiatives. Anatolian Grasslands team constantly encourage new and old farmers to build new communities around their geographical region first to benefit from each other’s experiences and second to raise awareness on the benefits of regenerative farming in their regions.
Durukan is also engaging the big players in the field as disseminators including within academia, central government, local municipalities, the FAO and the UNDP and he has been on tours of numerous villages upon the request of the Agriculture Ministry where he is presenting Anatolian Grasslands as a best practice. Governmental organizations are specifically interested in encouraging farmers in rapidly growing deserts to adopt Anatolian Grasslands methodology in order to minimize the hazardous effects of traditional methods. Their interest in these methods are growing vastly as academia presents more proofs on the long term effects of regenerative farming techniques. Durukan is also playing a crucial role here by attracting more experts/academicians to innovative solutions in agricultural sector by attending many conferences/events and inviting them to investigate their demo site.
Secondly, Durukan is fostering new farming communities in diverse geographies of Turkey, with 10 regenerative farms currently operating with the total of 250 hectares. 5 of these were set up by individuals who have been through Anatolian Grasslands trainings, 5 are ‘transformed’ mid-sized farms and 2 of them have become learning centers and hubs offering their own trainings on regenerative farming. The ‘transformed’ farms are mostly owned by the next generation of farmers who have been raised in farms by their comparatively traditional families. As they began to see the increased quality in their products -mostly milk- they realized their power of bargaining even with the nationwide buyers of these products.
Durukan and his team are transforming the dynamic between traditional farmers and citizens (often youth) who are moving from urban to rural, linking these usually disconnected groups and facilitating peer learning and knowledge transfer. Disconnection stemming from old farmers’ bias through new comers has been broken through the holistic approach of Anatolian Grasslands which is a topic included in the trainings/retreats. Durukan is aiming to vastly increase the number of independent learning and training centers so that Anatolian Grasslands can play at a higher level and focus on more macro level partnerships.
The strategy around creating and coordinating demand for regenerative goods is based on their new SafiMera initiative. This aims to disrupt classic market dynamics and create direct interconnections between regenerative producers and consumers. They are building food network communities from the fast growing urban centers, who gain a clear understanding of where their food comes from and its environmental impact. These groups advance order their produce, allowing farmers to better plan cash flows and harvests and creates a new channel of sales for the farmers which cuts the middleman. As the consciousness of urban citizens around the quality and purity of raw foods sold in supermarkets grows, SafiMera stands as a solid solution to the problem of misinformation on food which is on the agenda of many consumers not only in Turkey but also in many other industrialized countries.
Durukan is a true serial eco-entrepreneur with a founding role in over 5 environmental startups, including Turkey’s first green newspaper, the young greens political party, a youth commune living in harmony with nature and a number of citizen sector organisations, including the influential “Thinking Green Association”. Anatolian Grasslands is the result of many years of accumulated knowledge and entrepreneurial experience.
This all started at the age of 16 when he mobilized his friends into a team called ‘rangers’ to take local community based action to discover their local environment. The manifesto for the team he wrote at the time around living in harmony with nature was remarkably prescient about his future direction and has guided his actions since.
He found his way to several environmental NGOs as a volunteer throughout his school years, and was always puzzled by the contrast between how resourceful the environmentalists working on ecology were and how disempowered and disconnected the local people they tried to cooperate with were and how the resulting relationships which developed were dangerously vertical.
When he went to complete a masters in ecology in Sweden, he was struck by how empowered the local people were, how there was no clear gap between the capacities of the local rural people and the ecology “experts”. He was also struck by how many people in the environmental community had the activist mentality focused on stopping instead of focusing on solutions and regenerating. Upon his return, instead of falling into the same trap as many of Turkey’s NGOs and centering his activities in Istanbul, he re-settled in his grandfather’s village and began putting into action his dreams of an empowering and productive rural life.
Today, Durukan is arguably Turkey’s environmentalist movement’s youngest thought leader, appearing regularly on television, newspapers and regularly giving talks in cities at home and abroad.