Women in Turkey’s Northeast are positioned to lead an organic beekeeping revolution.
Let me tell you why.
Let’s start with Turkey’s Northeast. Turkey’s northeast has multiple reputations; the most famous one is “dangerous.” Because of bad press and Orhan Pamuk’s compelling novel Snow, when most people think about the Northeast, they think of frightful weather in winter, tensions between Islam and laicism, young girls’ suicides, and the looming closed border with Armenia. A sizable number of the regional population has left due to a lack of economic opportunities. And many who live in the big cities look this direction and see terrorism, and tension between the bordering countries Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Iran.
Since June 17th when I arrived in Turkey again, every person I have met has asked me: why would you ever move to Kars? At first I can tell by their looks that they are suspicious. Are you here to write a book describing everything that is complicated about Turkey and have it set it in our town? Are you here to study politics and the Armenian issue? Are you a spy, an agent, a fraud? With Turkey’s beautiful seas, massive west coast tourism industry, and Istanbul, why why why would you ever come to Kars, and gasp, stay.
“I am here to study honey.”
Generally that is as far as I need to get. Their faces relax. “We do that here, in fact we do it really well! Welcome welcome welcome!”
They are right. The honey out here is some of the best in the world. There are over 9,000 varieties of flowers, and incredible altitude variation that leads to unique season pockets where you can capture an remarkably variety of honey – all within a 200 km range. Everywhere I go, one of the first things a beekeeper tells me is the local rakim, altitude, which means new seasons, new flowers, new flavors, new tastes. Honey here can almost bee like fine wine, with a number of factors influencing it’s “bouquet.”
There is also the original Kafkas bee (or something close to it), a durable bee species indigenous to this region. It can heartily gather honey even in the wind, the cold, and the rain. Because so many people have left, the countryside is open, vast, pure, and untouched. Nature is free to reign. Raising large scale crops is difficult due to the weather, so there are less pesticides and chemicals to threaten the bees. Beekeepers come from across Turkey to be here, and they have done this migration for hundreds of years. So the environment is as ideal as you are going to find for organic beekeeping.
Next piece of the statement: women. Why will women in particular be the leaders? While visiting men beekeepers across the region and evaluating whether they can become organic certified, we find some problems (check out my post on organic honey in Turkey to understand some of the requirements). In most cases, they have been beekeeping most of their lives. They are established with all of their supplies, often owning more than 100 hives. They are used to traveling to the same locations that they have been coming to for generations, and they are comfortable in their ways. To purchase new unpainted hives, to acquire organic wax, to make sure all of the beekeepers in the area are organic, to stop migrating to warmer fruit crops in the winter, to stop feeding bees sugar, to essentially start all over and then hope to pass certification would cost them thousands of lira. Is all this effort worth it just for a label that says organic? And when they sell their honey, who will know the difference or care? Most people in the area think the defining characteristic of organic honey is the color white (my myths of organic honey post is on its way). For these men beekeepers, organic certification is often difficult, and discouraging.
Women beekeepers on the other hand are just getting started. And the group of beekeepers that I have fallen into – who will graduate from a three-month organic beekeeping course with the Marmara Grubu THIS Friday – are ready and trained to do nothing but keep bees organically. They have anywhere from four to 12 hives, which is just few enough to experiment with, make mistakes, and even start over without enduring major losses. Not all of them will continue, but whereas many beekeeping beginners might become frustrated and stop, these women and their families have gone through a great deal to complete this organic beekeeping course. While courses such as these have been done in the past, and many women eventually do give up because they lack the right support and connection to markets, a long-term program that provides these services would help them launch this new skill into a full-fledged profession as a local organic honey leader (this would be the hope of Balyolu).
Here I will explain the final piece of my statement – an organic beekeeping revolution. Organic has come to Turkey, and it thrives in places where major pharmaceutical seed companies – like Bayer and Monsanto still haven’t arrived. If you get out here to the borderlands, where agricultural production is small-scale, and bio-diversity is celebrated, there is true potential to start an organic beekeeping revolution.
And I have visited, laughed, and lived with the women who are ready to lead it.