My family’s olive groves are a legacy passed down through generations
Travelling back to my mother’s village in Turkey for the annual harvest held life-changing lessons about our ancestral lands and my future responsibility towards them
It is believed that many of the olive trees in Edincik, my mother’s village in the Marmara region of north-west Turkey, date back to the era of Greek antiquity. However, olive farming, a business my family has been in since the early 1900s, truly flourished during the time of the Ottoman empire.
Being half-Turkish and half-British, my sister and I had only ever visited Turkey for summer holidays as children. Now that my uncle has taken over our farm, however, my cousin Batu and I will inherit the groves some day. Knowing the responsibility that will eventually fall to us, learning the work that goes into maintaining and harvesting the trees is essential.
Edincik is a blissfully rural place overlooking the coast. Just a stone’s throw away from the ancient city of Kyzikos, it is made up of farmland and situated among rolling hills. As the local trades of chicken, silkworm and grape farming died out over the past 40 years or so, olive production gradually became the primary source of income for families like my own.
Today, the industry — vital to communities across the Mediterranean, Middle East and North Africa — is under threat. Climate change, economic pressures and rising urban migration are making it ever harder for agrarian communities to scrape a living from the land. What was once a stable job, allowing farmers to provide for their families and those of future generations, is becoming increasingly untenable.
The reality of the problems facing Turkish olive farmers hit home for me in 2021. Accompanied by my mother, I used the November reading week of my final year of university to escape to Edincik for my first harvest. I also took the opportunity to share and learn more about my heritage by filming a documentary, interviewing my grandad and other farmers about their lives and work.
Each morning at around 8am, my mum, auntie and I walked down to the olive sorting station to fill crates that would then be sold to a local cooperative. Picking through the fruits that had been grown in our gardens connected me to the village in a whole new way, immersing me in a way of life. In the UK, the closest I ever came to food production was my first job at 16, stocking shelves at Marks & Spencer.
For children of immigrants who are not fluent in the language of their families, inheriting land, property or a business “back home” presents particular challenges. Olive farming is a full-time job that requires intimate knowledge of the various tasks that need to be completed throughout the growing season, from carefully pruning the branches in early March and late May to applying fertiliser at the appropriate time. If I, like many other people of mixed heritage, intend to keep our lands in the family, I will need to split my life between the two countries I am from.
Twenty-first-century olive farming requires immense resilience. A successful harvest needs more investment and labour than ever before. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has classified the Mediterranean Basin, where my family’s groves lie, as a “hotspot”. Serious fluctuations in temperature and excessive rainfall shortened the 2023 harvest by weeks, leaving many farmers in significant debt and with smaller crops to sell.
Changing weather patterns have had a dramatic effect on the quality of my family’s olives. In Edincik, pests are the main concern. Harvests are being disrupted by flies, which used to die off in the winter snow but are now surviving. Knowing that my uncle’s income is dependent on the amount and size of our olives, it is crushing to sort through crates for hours on end and discard more than half of the crop.
According to my uncle, without a mass buyer of damaged olives, to whom he connects other local farmers, most people in the village would not be able to survive. For me, securing the future of our farm will require me to develop a comprehensive understanding of the changes we need to make.
Turkey’s spiralling cost of living has also made farming increasingly precarious. In October 2022 the country’s inflation rate reached more than 85%. The collective debts of farmers have also quadrupled to £10.7 million since 2017. As my mum said to me when we were working the harvest, it’s no wonder people choose to get an office job with a pension, rather than carry on working their family farms.
Many families whose children leave Edincik end up selling their lands, ending their connection to the trade. For my cousin, who plans to move to Izmir to attend university in 2026, and myself, learning how to balance the ways of life we have chosen with our inheritance will be the key to keeping the farm going.
Despite the problems Edincik’s farms face, life continues to revolve around the land. “People plan their children’s weddings around the harvest,” says Abdullah, a farmer and trade unionist from the village. “From the moment we are born we see olives. Whether we win or lose, we have to keep trying.”
Similarly, the prospect of inheriting lands and a trade so deeply rooted in family history comes with many challenges, but it is a blessing that I and my cousin are keen to accept. In Edincik, olives are not an accompaniment to an expensive glass of wine; they offer sustenance. Every day, at breakfast, we ate olives from the previous year’s harvest to fuel our work in the groves.
During my first harvest, Abdullah told me that “olives mean the continuation of life”. Having returned twice now, I’m starting to understand the importance of learning the trade as soon as I can. Improving my Turkish and learning how to adapt to the changing climate will help me to eventually play my part in the business.
Most important of all, I have developed a profound appreciation of the land, not just as a place to make a living, but as a fundamental part of the identity of my family and millions of others like us across the globe.
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