Decolonising Hazelnuts

Ağustos is a small, family-run business based on a farm in Giresun Province, Turkey, producing around ten tons of biodiverse hazelnuts per year. Its founders Ula Woźniak and Alp Ocak share how they are challenging the global big brand hazelnut monopoly by planting local varieties, working with nature-based, methods compliant with fair labour standards, planting local seeds for change, creating related incentives, and leading by example.

We are Ula and Alp, a husband and wife team and founders of Ağustos- Decolonial Hazelnut. Alp is a member of a sixth-generation hazelnut-growing family whose farm is in Giresun Province in the Black Sea Region of northeastern Turkey. He is also an environmental lawyer and through his many years of practice, he has long been aware of the appalling injustice in the hazelnut trade in his native country of Turkey.

Four years ago, Alp’s family took the first step in trying to redress this injustice by taking back control of the long-lost connection between their own farm and the consumer with the creation of our own brand and selling directly. It didn’t take long for our brand to become more than a family business, supported by a collective of like-minded people with various backgrounds and knowledge sets. In 2022, family ties to Berlin led us to establish the retail hub of Ağustos in the German capital.

Alp Ocak’s family farm is situated in the steep mountainous terrain and humid, subtropical climate of Giresun on the Southern Böack Sea coast. In the hazelnut orchard, the fibrous cupules are separated from the nuts mechanically. Photo © Alp Okak

Hazelnuts are an ancient crop grown in Northeastern Anatolia and traded throughout Europe for over 2,200 years. Hazelnut trees are thought to have originated in China and travelled via Iran to the shores of the Southern Black Sea. The fruit of the Corylus tree has been consumed by humans, and its wood used for baskets and fences, since the Middle Stone Age. East Asian manuscripts dating back to 2838 BC also mention the cultivation of hazelnuts.

A broken system 

Today, more than 80 per cent of the hazelnuts growing in the Black Sea region of Turkey are connected to globally operated, growth-driven, for-profit businesses, with almost every other nut ending up in a jar of Nutella (a company that, as of 2024, is owned by the wealthiest person in Italy). Worldwide, the ten largest producers harvest around 97.5 per cent of the total global hazelnut crop, mostly for the European market. Therefore, the whole ecology of the hazelnut plant, its cultivators, its animal and its plant kin are embedded in extractivist and colonialist power networks, attuned by and for a global monopoly and resulting in a monoculture straight jacket. 

The whole ecology of the hazelnut plant, its cultivators, its animal and its plant kin are embedded in extractivist and colonialist power networks.

The commercialisation of the Black Sea hazelnut trade, which peaked in the mid-19th century, led to a tremendous loss of varieties. With the industrialisation of hazelnut production for the inter/national markets, all agricultural efforts were reduced to the efficient (but pesticide-heavy) harvesting of only one variety: the Giresun oil hazelnut.

Industrialised hazelnut monoculture also led to a large-scale reliance on seasonal workers who often travel as families from distant parts of Anatolia and receive no support for childcare or education for their children from either the state or the local farmers. It is inevitable and socially accepted that the children of these migrant workers work alongside the adults at harvest time.

There is an abundance of hazelnut varieties and other fruits native to local gardens in Giresun. Photo © Aslihan Demirtaş

In the 1980s, the Turkish Republic’s hazelnut cooperative Fiskobirlik (founded in 1938) ceased buying other nuts from local farmers and only bought the Giresun variety. This “one nation, one nut” policy has led to the disappearance of dozens of hazelnut varieties from the Black Sea’s hazelnut forests.

A State practice that is supposed to serve as a protective mechanism, causes a range of dependencies from (inter-)national supply chains to unfair trade policies.

Fiskobirlik’s State-supported, top-down price policy has resulted in a majority of small farmers being forced to sell their products to local and international food wholesalers, sometimes below value. The Turkish State itself hardly buys any hazelnuts, and if so, only months after the end of the harvest. Therefore a State practice that is supposed to serve as a protective mechanism, causes a range of dependencies from (inter-)national supply chains to unfair trade policies.

A new approach

We founded Ağustos (Turkish for “August”, traditionally the main harvesting month for hazelnuts) to formulate and strengthen alternative routes to the monoculture status quo, with wider implications for society, culture, economy, and ecology. Our approach is one of teaching by example. It includes measures such as not accepting child labour in our orchards and at the same time trying to, find other childcare solutions for the hard-working families travelling to the Black Sea for work.

We also actively combat xenophobic attitudes towards workers from the Kurdish regions of Turkey, Afghanistan and other regions and ensure that these workers get a wage that is fair and not lower than what is paid to others. Equal pay and fair labour standards are also what we adhere to with our “gleaners” project, which empowers women and promotes socio-economic and gender equality in a way most visible to the local farming community.

Members of the Ocak family and Kurdish seasonal workers collect hazelnuts from the ground in one of the orchards. Photo © Alp Ocak.

With this project, we buy nuts from gleaners – (mainly) women who collect leftover hazelnuts from the orchards at the end of commercial harvesting – at a fair price, above market value and produce from assorted batches of gleaner’s nuts. In autumn 2024, we hope to sell these batches in Berlin, where we are also based.

We are continuously working on our biodiversity-enhancing farming practice, which focuses on the health of the soil as well as the well-being of several varieties of hazelnut trees and other species including, among others, apple, date, chestnut, cherry and wild forest plants in our orchards. In the process, we have transformed what originally developed as a family business into a collective that brings together expertise from the fields of architecture, design, law, sociology and pedagogy.

Finally, we prefer to work with existing sustainable distribution networks. That’s why we are members of several cooperatives and organic retailers in Turkey (such as BÜKOOP and Postane Shop) as well as community-supported agriculture projects in Berlin and surrounding Brandenburg, including Staudenmüller, Waldgarten and Ackerwesen that enable us to be resource-efficient and get in touch with our consumers while putting solidarity and sharing, rather than growth at the core of our activities. For us, operating within the spirit of the farm-to-table movement more than anything else implies that as farmers and producers, we can have a say in all steps of the food chain while being transparent about our major business choices, from the harvest to distribution. 

Decolonising hazelnuts

Ağustos’ main focus is to promote the protection and enhancement of biodiversity of the hazelnut species and develop routes out of the straight-jacket of monocultural farming. 

Our slogan “Decolonized Hazelnut” first and foremost reflects our mission to break the hegemony of monoculture. Loss of biodiversity is one of the biggest threats posed by man-made climate change: In the global agriculture sector, 86 per cent of food species are at risk of extinction. The crisis currently unfolding in West African cocoa plantations, for example, is a stark example of how monoculture drastically accelerates the effects of climate change.

Freshly collected, peeled and sundried hazelnuts in a bowl on the Ocak family’s lunch table. Photo © Alp Ocak.

We currently make use of four different hazelnut varieties in our products and indicate them on our packaging. To combat the loss of biodiversity, we have planted 19 different hazelnut species in one of our orchards. Creating such a gene pool not only actively combats the very real danger of their disappearance from local ecologies, but it also increases their sociocultural value, as we actively invite the local farming community to join us on this path.

“Decolonised Hazelnut” also refers to our mindset that sees climate crisis events such as droughts as direct correlations to the post-colonial world order due to historical processes of dispossession, disenfranchisement, and displacement. For us, decolonising agricultural systems and the ecologies that these occupy is an ongoing declaration of intent, that we are backing up with concrete action. Part of this is undoing anthropocentric narratives as much as possible. That’s why our brand logo is a picture of Balaninus nucum, the nut weevil. We don’t fight this creature that feeds on hazelnuts but cherish it as an important element of the hazelnut ecosystem. After all, the biodiversity of our gardens also means a greater diversification of food sources for non-humans, be they insects, or other local species.

Shared knowledge

In the summer of 2023, we had the opportunity to visit a small corner of the world that also has an amazing tradition of hazelnut production: Italy’s Piedmont region. We learned many lessons from this trip that can help us with our own efforts. We were impressed by the region’s widely shared acceptance of the importance of regional knowledge that translates into the certification of their products as such. We were likewise amazed by the variety of small-scale businesses, that provide examples of economically sustainable production that ostensibly cherishes culture, as local recipes are celebrated and upheld.

“Decolonised Hazelnut” refers to our mindset that sees climate crisis events such as droughts as direct correlations to the post-colonial world order due to historical processes of dispossession, disenfranchisement, and displacement.

But just like the Anatolian Black Sea region, the Piedmont region is firmly in the grip of monoculture. While one can still detect different hazelnut varieties in Turkey, we didn’t come across a single Piedmontese farmer producing a variety other than the renowned Tonda Gentile delle Langhe cultivar. To us, the most visible difference between those two regions lies in the actual methods of farming and production. The harvesting methods of the Anatolian hazelnut farmers may seem archaic, especially when compared with its Italian cousin. Hazelnuts in Turkey are hand-picked, usually from the ground, and frequently on extremely steep slopes. In contrast, Italian hazelnuts are harvested with the help of modern machinery which surely safeguards the worker’s spines but also implies an incredible consumption of fossil fuel and a brutal rendering of the orchard soils into virtually grass-free deserts. We believe that much more can be learned from comparisons such as these, especially when freeing ourselves from the dogma of searching for the “world’s best variety”.

Goals

Ağustos is an organically developing business. This implies that our product development takes time but we are excited to say we will soon be offering more than two types of nut butter and continuing with our mission to celebrate the variety of hazelnut cultivars and their flavours in our products. We would love to collaborate with even more Community Supported Agriculture projects, especially from Berlin and Brandenburg and we have joined the community of regular food stalls at Markthalle Neun in Kreuzberg, Berlin where we currently sell our products on Fridays and Saturdays. 

We also sell our hazelnuts and products at a stall in Markthalle Neun in the Kreuzberg neighbourhood of Berlin and other local markets. Photo © Alp Ocak.

In the meantime, our website is in the making as is our online shop, alongside our ongoing quest to keep waste production as low as necessary. As a small-scale local producer, we have striven to generate contacts with other local businesses in our home city of Berlin. In this process, we have come to realise that many small shopkeepers and community-owned merchants and cooperatives face the challenge of wanting to support local produce and delivery systems while lacking the time or energy needed to organise it. It is a tough task to make major changes to the delivery part of the food chain but we look forward to continuing our journey with optimism by connecting with like-minded people from the sustainable food sector and beyond.

Alp Ocak is a farmer and environmental lawyer, and as of 2021, the co-founder of Ağustos. For more than two decades his legal practice has encompassed various areas of struggle for social and ecological justice in Turkey’s rural and urban spaces. His planning and environmental law expertise is, among others, informed by dozens of citizen’s lawsuits in defence of the Black Sea Region’s ecosystem in Turkey, which is also the habitat of the Anatolian hazelnut kin. As a member of a sixth-generation hazelnut-growing family, he spent his whole life examining the plant. Alp is the author of a yet-to-be-published hazelnut dictionary.

Ula Woźniak is a social scientist, writer and food enthusiast. She holds a PhD in Sociology from the Humboldt University in Berlin and has spent several years living and working in Turkey. Next to her engagement for equal opportunity and diversity policies as well as academic publishing work on urban and migration matters and authoritarianism, in recent years, Ula has been intrigued by exploring food systems and possible modes of decolonisation. In 2022, she co-founded the German branch of Ağustos with Alp.

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