Insights in Turkish Agriculture Challenges through Sumer Tömek Bayındır.
To measure is to know. And what you know you can manage. Nobody will object to this statement, especially as we are measuring more and more so one would expect that we manage better. You wished. In theory, we can measure an amazing number of things. So when you don’t measure or do not share measurements, then we can imagine what happens with the management.
Agriculture is part of my DNA. My grandfather was a farmer and I farmed for a couple of years, even almost starting my own bio farm, but luckily I couldn’t find enough free land. I was too young and too naive at that time. Meeting Sumer Tömek Bayındır around 3 years ago was a relief as I found a person submerged in agriculture like I have been too, with 1 big difference, it is also her living and destiny so to say. Today she is the General Manager, and together with her brother, Başat Tömek, Technical Coordinator, leading TETA Teknik Tarım in Izmir, Türkiye. It’s a family business with strong roots and love in and for Türkiye but with an international mindset.
Sumer studied Business Administration in English at Dokuz Eylül University Izmir, Türkiye. Followed immediately with a Master's degree that took 2 years at the University of Massachusetts Boston and stayed 1 extra year to continue working. Boston is called by some the Athens of America so in that sense she was close to home. In her 2nd year, she started working in a textile company but she withheld her boss from applying for a Green Card as she assumed she might not stay in the US. And she didn’t, returning back to Izmir.
Upon her return from the States, her father told her he was waiting for her for a small surgical procedure. He disappeared for 1 month. I guess she didn’t expect this, seeing her smile while telling me. It was like an accelerated jump into his business. Her father was an agricultural engineer academician helping farmers with his acquired knowledge throughout his academic career. He started his company, TETA Teknik Tarım, in his late 40’s, in 1989. He focused on finding the best solutions, machines, and helping the dairy farmers with cows, sheep, or goats. In 1983 he was the first to apply his vision with a modern dairy farm in Torbalı with 400 cows, which was big for Türkiye and Europe. A complete system that was unique and attracted a lot of visitors from Türkiye and also from abroad. It quickly became a model farm.
From 2008 on, investors started to have bigger size farms, so TETA served the bigger farms. Manure systems, milking systems, etc, becoming gradually a full-fledged service provider with a focus on the animal husbandry farm business. More and more products were developed and made in-house. Later on, local producers were added as they were able to produce cheaper and better products in time. Recently they restarted providing machinery and systems also to medium and smaller farms. The philosophy behind this, started by their father, was to offer them the knowledge they acquired through their customer base of around 1500 farms. Trickle-down the knowledge to smaller farmers who can not afford the consultancy and investments the bigger ones are capable of.
Sumer was at first more interested in entrepreneurship, next to managing the company. She was for many years very active in JCI, 18 years to be more precise, showing her dedication. As if she didn’t have enough at hand she was one of the starters of the Family Business Network NGO Taider, in 2015. The main purpose was to find a way to extend the life of a family business. The purpose is to make Turkiye the top in generation succession rate. A lot of importance was drawn to sustainability, an important asset for family businesses. Big corporations have a lot of drawbacks on real sustainable business results, but family businesses can do a lot about it. Meeting with international like-minded people she saw the same issues coming back independent of the country or culture you live in.
Apart from other initiatives, she started in 2008 “Izmir Tarim Group”, not an NGO but just a group of people connected through agriculture. The idea was to lobby for agriculture, like trying to have more representatives in parliament. Sumer saw very quickly that this was going to be hard, if not impossible. It was a great learning experience and in 2018 she kicked off another NGO, “TARIM 4.0 Teknoloji ve Etki Derneği”, which translates to AGRICULTURE 4.0 Technology and Impact Association. Two things are important in this name and these are 2 very important drivers for Sumer. Agriculture 4.0 first of all. Although very fashionable today, it has been the core asset of her company, TETA. The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR or Industry 4.0) is nothing but the continuation of automatisation where M2M or now called IoT, collecting data that is used for the management of processes and integrated for increased automation. So they call it all smart now with AI as the wonder tool. The second part is Impact. Sumer is not a big fan of using sustainability or the SDGs. Every day she is confronted with real-life challenges that the farmers are faced with. Through experience, she is more eager to thrive for Impact, a positive impact on society as she likes to see all elements as part of a holistic view of the world. I would rather be more precise, as impact also means an object hitting another object. The Economic and Societal impact would be more precise and is the demonstrable contribution that excellent social and economic research makes to society and the economy, and its benefits to individuals, organisations, and/or nations. (ref: https://esrc.ukri.org/research/impact-toolkit/what-is-impact/).
The scope of TARIM 4.0 Teknoloji ve Etki Derneği goes from farming to food to gastronomy. As Sumer is a nosy person she wanted to capture the full food chain process until it disappears in your mouth and further on. For instance in Italy, they saw the importance of Local Produces and Chefs promoting it. In Europe you have 3 labels: protected designation of origin (PDO), protected geographical indication (PGI), and traditional specialties guaranteed (TSG). This system is similar to appellation systems used throughout Europe, such as the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) used in France, the denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) used in Italy. In Türkiye the same approach is tried but didn’t result yet to for example an increase in prices or really good protection. There is definitely a lack of marketing and a legal framework. Knowing that in Türkiye there are so many genuine local products!
In Türkiye we are less focused on chef-based restaurants compared to Europe. I reminded of an episode of Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown, when he visited NOMA in Denmark. He wandered through the local farm where head chef René Redzepi got his ingredients, all locally grown. Actually, all chefs Bourdain visited focused on a locally grown, season-based menu. Would be great to have the same culture in Türkiye, not as an exception, but as a rule.
From gastronomy to local producers is the vision of Sumer for Tarım 4.0, combining automatisation and impact. She has enough examples like our olive oil or our amazing cheeses. I even take white cheese with me when traveling to Belgium. Can not miss it at breakfast. We have in Türkiye centuries of experience in our local produce with an amazing variation thanks to different climate types, soil types, etc. And she makes sure that I do not see it as a romantic idea underlining that technology should go hand in hand with tradition where it makes sense. Tech as a tool, not tech for tech. One can not deny that the ambition of Tarım 4.0 (Agriculture 4.0) set the bar very high.
This brings us to her latest adventure, organising an online summit “Tarım ve Teknoloji Zirvesi” or “Agriculture and Technology Summit”, that took place on the 25th and 26th of May 2021. The setup was a 2 days summit involving all the stakeholders, from Government, local and national, the Izmir municipality, other NGOs, the Chambers, to scientists and entrepreneurs. Even non-agricultural people, like digital transformation specialists. All participants as speakers stayed involved for 2 days. The mayor of Izmir spoke 2 times. Presidents speaking from the different Chambers took the floor. All the known topics came to the foreground. The questions could be addressed through the facilitators. Many topics were handled thanks to the selection of speakers by Sumer. For example, a professor confirming the importance of gastronomy to get more appreciation for local produce. Even controversial topics came to the fore, like a professor who explained climate change is a returning phenomenon. I am not a scientist so I need to trust my instinct, what I see around me and the sources I believe in. I also learned that the title professor does not always give you extra credibility. And I also think it is a very complex issue and the cow farts are definitely not the biggest one. But deniers of what is obvious, RAPİD climate change through human interaction can not be ignored. As I said, I am not a scientist, it is just my opinion. What I do see is that each industry defends his or her potential impact on the topic for economic or other reasons, sometimes justified, sometimes not. But definitely a hot potato I loved discussing with Sumer.
I was very interested to understand if all, or at least those involved in Agriculture, mentioned the same problems. Of course, Small Earnings is a very known topic and you can add to that the huge increase of debt to the banks. The enormous numbers of farmers who stopped producing, selling their land to construction companies or cattle. We are talking about a 50% decrease. Increase of arable land that is not cultivated and I would add, maybe not discussed in detail, the lack of accurate data. I had to go to the OECD website (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), to find meaningful data that is not even recent. The trend in recent years is a bigger consolidation leaving us more and more with industrial agriculture and a lot of not cultivated arable land.
There are also issues that go beyond what the agricultural sector can do. Türkiye was always an exporter of agricultural produce, Sumer pointed out that today Türkiye is not any more self-sustainable, even importing during harvest periods which seems very weird. I looked up some numbers through the OECD website. Agriculture is around 8% of total GDP, with 47.222 million USD in 2019, a decrease towards 2017 with 58.884 million USD. Support for agriculture went from 1.9% in 2017 to 1.1%. Taxes on fuel are very high in Türkiye, there is no exemption for farmers. Fertilizers, pesticides, and seeds are depending on the exchange rate of the USD, In 2017 the dollar was at 3.65 TL/Dollar. In 2021 we noted 8.5 TL/Dollar. Not mentioning the inflation and the interest on loans nor the height of debt of the farmers to banks. I mentioned this situation to Sumer and wondered if all stakeholders in the summit were aware of this situation? The answer was yes. So I fell in silence for a moment. Sumer went further into the problems and highlighted the importance of milk. Milk is an indicator for inflation. So the price is kept low. This is of course a problem for the farmer who can hardly feed his herd, can not invest, can not even survive. So they sell cows, shrinking the herd, because of the increasing debt. A vicious circle. It is the dead-end story for many farmers. What is the solution? Those who can resist will win. Fewer cows, production goes down and the price goes up. Since 2019 this process has started. The other effect is that poverty will increase. As mentioned by Sumer, all stakeholders are aware of this.
Of course, the “Why” question popped up, but still today I have no clear answer to the 5 Whys. I know Sumer and many other peers are fighting for the sector to survive and thrive. A lot of work has to be done and there is a big role here of the rulers of the country. Crossing my fingers and I know Sumer is doing the same, just hope they will not end up blue and numb.
My next question went towards solutions, as we like to see positive progress. And there are, small but growing, not yet organised. She sees startups using tech, based on IoT, precise farming, even fintech in agriculture. There is the growing “farmer to plate” movement, which is actually part of Turkish culture. More importantly, she pointed out to the agility of the farmers and their never-stopping drive to come to solutions, short term, more like surviving, with a positive attitude that can be hard to understand by an outsider. As Sumer pointed out, it is amazing how Turkish people, also farmers, can handle uncertainty and believe that tomorrow there will be a solution. As I said, I cross my fingers.
What about the next summit? Sumer was very happy with the 1st one with over 5000 participants, an amazing and diverse number of speakers, and many topics covered. The next one she wants a more vertical approach with more specific topics, focus on the economics of farming, reaching out to other regions. The 1st edition aimed at the Ege region, an important region, but there are other regions like Central Anatolia. Agriculture is not only about producing but is also important for employment.
As you can imagine we can go on for much longer, it is a broad and important topic, AgriFood. What I remembered from this lively interview/discussion is that I met a great female entrepreneur, who perfectly fulfills the role model most people are talking about. A person that combines her love for Agrifood with a great ambition to create a positive impact and is not afraid to get out, share her knowledge, create new opportunities and initiatives to come to a better world. No better way to start the next Now Sprint Accelerator program, Agrifood Impact, starting October 12th.