Fatih Gulec hopes his grow-to-order business model will help other struggling farmers. (Caption: Courtesy of Fatih Gulec)

When Fatih Gulec, a 54-year-old retired government agricultural engineer, realized he would go bankrupt, the potato plants in the fields he had rented in the central Anatolian city of Sivas were blanketed with green leaves. The potatoes were growing under the earth, but the money buyers offered for them was just enough to cover the soaring costs. 

Looking at the finances after the 2017 harvest, Gulec decided that being a small farmer was not sustainable in Turkey. “I was a little depressed, and I told everyone that if even I went bankrupt with my years of experience, it is not possible to maintain yourself if you depend on agriculture,” he says, recalling those days. 

After the bankruptcy, Gulec started working at a construction company, though he couldn’t stem his passion – or obsession, as he calls it – for farming. “After countless nights spent thinking about why I failed, I finally realized that I needed to find a solution where I could set the price as a producer,” he says. 

One night in 2018 he came up with an idea. “I noticed that people were interested in nature and farming and looking for healthy food but didn’t have the necessary means to safely grow their food, since they lived in big cities or were busy. And I was looking for alternative ways of selling to survive financially as a farmer. So I decided to create a system where those people can adopt a piece of land seasonally, and I can grow the fresh products they choose.”

That’s how Farmobile was born. The business allows customers – usually well-to-do urbanites – to pick seasonal produce and have it grown for them on leased land. They can keep up with their crops online and even visit the fields. Once the plants start producing they receive regular shipments, usually weekly. The Farmobile website notes that “during the maturation and plant growth phase, the user does not receive any product but waits patiently for plants to grow, like a farmer.”

A Different Kind of U-Pick

Farmobile combines agriculture with direct marketing. Customers adopt their land for either the winter, spring, or summer growing season – usually three to four months – via the website. After they pick the produce they want, Farmobile takes it from there. Gulec and his employees do the soil preparation, planting, field work, and harvesting. Local seeds are used whenever possible and are always non-GMO. A shipping company delivers the produce directly to customers.

“Tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers are in high demand during the summer,” Gulec says. “When the winter comes, people turn to radishes and spinach.” While vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, eggplant, corn, and carrots dominate the list on the website, customers also can choose melons and watermelons during the spring and summer. Farmobile offers its customers nearly 30 products over the course of the year.

With this system, Gulec knows his income before production starts, which helps shield him from potential losses due to the crop price fluctuations common in the country. 

Gulec also hopes to buck the trend of declining numbers of farmers and eventually help others do the same. According to the Turkish Ministry of Agriculture, there were more than 2.5 million registered farmers in the country in 2002. By 2018 the number declined to about 2.1 million and was less than 1.8 million in August 2020, the most recent year for which data is available. Experts believe that number is even lower now. In addition, Turkish Statistical Institute data show that the country’s agricultural land shrank by more than 18 percent between 2002 and 2020. 

Fethi Gurer, an opposition parliamentarian from the Republican People’s Party and an agricultural expert, believes unsound government policies are the main reason farmers are abandoning the fields.

“There is no central planning for agricultural production in Turkey,” he says. “Farmers don’t know how much money they will earn before the harvest, and most of the time, the payment they receive doesn’t cover the rising costs. It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that more and more farmers are leaving the sector.”

Sunset in Aydin, one of Turkey’s most important agricultural areas. Like elsewhere in the country, more and more farmers there are struggling. (Caption: Osman Orsal)

Eliminating Middlemen

The agricultural sector in Turkey was state-dominated until the 1980s. The ensuing privatization and liberalization of the industry negatively affected the country’s smallholders as they had to compete with well-established international agricultural businesses. The free market brought the small farms higher levels of uncertainty about their production and marketing decisions. The government has continued to support farmers through direct income transfers, but subsidies for agricultural inputs and compensatory payments are not enough for many. Turkey depends heavily on foreign products such as seeds and fertilizers, for which costs have increased rapidly in recent years as the Turkish lira has dropped in value. 

Another reason for farmers losing income is “the middleman system,” which came with the modernization of the supply chain, according to Gurer. Depending on the crop, middlemen get involved along the chain as shippers, wholesale brokers, and vendors of all sizes. Someone earns money at each step, but the lion’s share does not go to farmers.

Lemons provide one example: At the end of October 2021, many producers in the Aegean area of Turkey couldn’t even sell their produce for one Turkish lira per kilo (about 7 U.S. cents). The price was about 4 lira at the wholesale market in Istanbul, and lemons sold in stores for about 7 lira per kilo.

That’s why Gulec decided Farmobile should cut itself free of the middlemen. 

Parlaying Green Influencer Status

A friend who employed Gulec at his construction company as a landscaping manager agreed to let him use one of the company’s vacant plots of land.

Gulec then designed the Farmobile website. As a “green influencer” on Twitter, he shared the Farmobile project with his social media followers who turned to him for farming advice. At the start in 2018, only four people signed up.

Cornfields in the Alpu plain, Eskisehir, Turkey. (Caption: Osman Orsal)

“Early on, it was just me preparing the vegetable beds, sowing, planting, hoeing, and picking the crops when they were ready,” says Gulec. He wasn’t sure if it was going to work. “I just wanted to give myself another chance, but I wasn’t too optimistic.”

The number of Farmobile users grew gradually thanks mainly to word-of-mouth marketing by pleased customers. During the 2021-2022 winter season, the system served 35 customers with crops grown in Eskisehir, in west-central Turkey, and Hatay on the Mediterranean coast. At first, Farmobile plots occupied less than 200 square meters; now, the operation covers more than 1,500 square meters on two fields, plus backup plots, and Gulec has hired three employees.

The business has a customer retention rate of more than 60 percent, Gulec says. 

Sadun Yucel, a 53-year-old doctor from Istanbul, is one of those steady customers. He extended his subscription for the fifth time last winter. “The products are fresh and delicious, just like the ones from my childhood,” Yucel says. “At home, we arrange our cooking according to the products we choose for that season, since we don’t want to consume regular things from the supermarkets. And most of the time, the package Farmobile sends is more than enough for our needs.” 

Yucel says he believes what we put in our bodies directly affects our health, and this is another reason he likes Farmobile. “Even in a fancy organic market, I don’t have total trust in the safety of the products since the supervision in Turkey is insufficient. Once I even saw empty bottles of fertilizer in the dumpster at an organic farm. But with Farmobile, I can track every step of production.”

Involving the Customers 

To build trust with his customers, Gulec sends weekly photos from the fields and explains every move during the growth cycle. If a customer asks for it, the staff also test the soil and the products for things like pesticide residue. But Gulec says few request it because Farmobile has created a relationship with customers based on mutual trust. 

“I can’t survive as a farmer in the current circumstances if consumers don’t understand the whole process,” he says. “Farming has always been risky. The weather is important, and you have to be careful about the pests. There is always tension while you are waiting for crops to grow and joy when you see your vegetables at the table. I want to share both of those with my clients, and I believe we have reached that point with many of them.”

All this attention to detail, however, carries a price tag that’s hefty for most in a country where 40 percent of the workforce earns the net minimum wage of $290 per month. For the 2021-22 winter season, Farmobile had three subscription options. With the Eco Package, priced at 2,000 lira (about $135), a customer rents 12 square meters of land and picks three different types of products to grow. The Beginner and Premium packages come with 25 square meters of land. Beginner provides five product options for 3,000 lira, and Premium seven products for 3,500 lira. Shipping, which typically takes one to three days, is included.

The Beginner package is enough to cover the basic produce needs of a family of four, once weekly deliveries begin in the second half of the subscription period after the plants have matured enough, Gulec says. For a three-month subscription, a customer receives six or seven weekly packages. 

Hopes for Expansion

Most of the clients come from the upper middle class. Gulec hopes to reduce prices and expand the customer base by including other producers in the system, perhaps by 2023. With investment from a popular TV presenter who wants to remain anonymous, Farmobile plans to hire farmers around the country as subcontractors. Each farmer would pay part of his or her earnings to Farmobile. In return, Farmobile would handle delivery, marketing, and customer relations, as well as overseeing all participating producers as the umbrella brand.

“The startup expenses of any project are high,” he says. “This makes many innovative services only available to some portion of the society at first. Still, by involving other producers, we can share fixed costs like deliveries and marketing and provide more affordable choices.”

Gulec wants to help farmers by creating an alternative way to ensure economic sustainability, and consumers by offering a safe food option and a chance to participate in growing their own vegetables and fruits. 

Farmobile does portion out some risk between the producer and the customer. The company provides information about the expected yield for each crop, but nothing is certain until harvest. Customers accept a loss risk of up to 50 percent. If the loss exceeds that limit, Farmobile makes up the difference from its backup fields. However, “thanks to Allah,” says Gulec, “we haven’t lost more than 10 percent of crops in any field since we started.” 

Ece Senel, a 26-year-old Farmobile customer from Istanbul, says the pandemic helped people understand the importance of food production. And they learned how difficult growing food can be while trying to raise vegetables on their balconies. Because of that, she says, “I didn’t find the risk-sharing condition weird. For the products I receive from Farmobile, I’m willing to take the risk. This is also a fairer way.”

A risk-sharing system seems like an impossible dream for another farmer from Eskisehir, where one of Farmobile’s fields is located. Meral Kurt, 61, grows wheat and barley in fields outside the city center she inherited from her family. 

“When there isn’t sufficient planning and support, farming is like gambling,” she says. “Think of me as a hotel owner. I have rooms to rent but don’t know the price. There are various risks in the production process, and even if we can survive any losses, it is not guaranteed that we will get the price we want.”

Gulec, whose startup costs came from savings and hasn’t yet turned a profit, is cautious but optimistic. 

“One night last year, I asked my wife and children what they thought about the business and the money we earned and whether we should continue or not,” he says. “They assured me that everything was fine, and that we should keep doing what we were doing. It is a rare thing in Turkey, a farmer going to bed at night without demons in his head. I have fewer demons with Farmobile, and my customers are happy. I want to share this with more people.”

This Solution Journalism story has been produced as a result of cooperation between Inside Turkey and Transitions.