The production of organic hazelnuts involves a lot of manual labor for fieldwork and harvesting, leading to much higher production costs compared to conventional farming. Therefore, organic farmers are always seeking solutions to increase the profitability of their farms. Happy Hazelnut aims to support farmers in this area.
That is why Işik Tarim & Varistor AG started an innovative pilot project last year to test the use of harvest nets to collect hazelnuts. The objective of the harvest nets is to make organic hazelnut production more efficient and less costly while also improving the quality of hazelnuts.
In Turkey, a young and motivated team of agronomists is implementing this project together with the Happy Hazelnut farmers. We have talked with Mesut Karsli (24), the responsible agronomist at Işik Tarim, who is passionately working to make the use of this harvest method a reality.
Mesut, did you come up with the idea of the harvest nets?
In our work with farmers, we regularly conduct interviews to know what their problems are, and how we can adapt our tailor-made programs to their needs. During discussions with Happy Hazelnut farmers from four different cities, they mentioned their dissatisfaction with the traditional harvest methods. The problem was mainly due to the high number of workers needed, leading not only to high labor costs but also many coordination efforts. Leader farmers started trying out different new harvest practices. For example, new harvesting machines were developed, but they did not work well in the hilly areas and required a lot of maintenance and technical know-how. Some of our farmers then started to experiment with harvest nets, which they saw used in the olive farms in Turkey. However, those had to be applied differently in the hazelnut plantations. This is how we realized that developing the net method for the hazelnut sector could have a long-lasting impact on the field.
Was it difficult to motivate the farmers to participate in the pilot project?
Yes. It was difficult to motivate producers who had never used harvest nets before. However, this is something normal. Farmers always want to see with their own eyes. We organized farmers’ meetings in two pilot villages to show them how the nets work. The main barrier for participating and buying harvest nets was the investment cost. We solved this issue by providing farmers interest-free credits. Credits must be paid back after two years, which is the estimated payback time of harvest nets. Under this scheme, farmers only pay back what they save on labor costs. This motivated seven farmers to participate in the pilot in 2019. They bought the nets and tested them on their farms.
What did the pilot farmers most like about it?
There are many aspects they like. First, farmers completed the harvest faster. Second, they like the flexibility in timing the harvest. The nets protect the fallen hazelnuts from dirt and fungal/bacterial disease if they are on the ground for a while before they are collected. Because farmers can harvest faster and whenever they want, they were able to complete the harvest with their families, regardless of the availability of hired workers. Third, hazelnut trees do not get damaged when picking the nuts from the branches during the harvest, and no hazelnuts are left in the soil after harvesting. The use of nets reduces the risk of defective nuts that producers cannot sell. Further, farmers did not have to do the pre-drying process in the sun (a total of 2–3 days), saving more labor and time. The best about our pilot project, however, is that farmers who had a positive experience will now continue to use the harvest nets on their farm and will advise their neighbors to do the same.
How could this method potentially affect seasonal agricultural workers and their children?
Harvesting is now safer, more ergonomic, and faster. If fewer adult workers are used to complete the harvest, the workers of the Happy Hazelnut farmers are able to harvest more farms. This allows us to include more farmers into the project, without the need to invest to construct another building for accommodation. Workers are happy because they are less tired and have no back/neck pain because there is no need to pick every single nut from the ground. In our Happy Hazelnut Project, children stay in the Happy House. Now, their parents come home with more energy to play after a long workday.
How are you monitoring the success of the project?
The Işık Tarim’s agriculture team, together with the University of the Aegean academicians, prepared a 3-year research project to monitor different aspects of hazelnut production, such as quality and production costs. In 2019, the idea was to gain experience by setting up a preliminary trial. We conducted two sets of analyses, the first at two weeks after the harvest and the second at six months after the harvest, to observe quality changes in the nuts. Further, we calculated the labor costs of all methods in the pilot farms and compared them. Next year, we will increase the number of hazelnut samples, which will give us additional solid data.
Where do we stand now, and what are the next steps?
We believe that the harvest nets will increase farmers’ incomes and thereby lead to a more sustainable hazelnut sector. We have collected valuable first experiences with the new method this year and are now facilitating knowledge exchange between the farmers. Some farmers have already tested different ways to spread nets on the ground. We are looking forward to extending the project next season. In the next weeks, we are also recruiting new farmers to work with us next season and plan to support them with all the knowledge we gained through this initiative.