This small Turkish town grows a quarter of the world’s hazelnuts

Abundance can be both a blessing and a curse.
Abundance can be both a blessing and a curse.
Image: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
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ORDU, TURKEY—To lovers of hazelnuts, this small city on the Black Sea coast in far eastern Anatolia is nothing short of a garden of earthly delights.

Residents dispatch young children to schools named after top hazelnut-producing families, before roaming the aisles of supermarkets stacked high with hazelnut delicacies. They pack off their college-age students to conduct hazelnut research at a nearby university, and then later retreat, hazelnuts in hand, to lounge in the waterfront park—which is dedicated, of course, to another hazelnut baron.

Even animals are occasionally caught up in the hazelnut-eating frenzy. Some locals half-jokingly insist their prized findik have aphrodisiac qualities. A few have subsequently taken to rearing their chickens on excess produce in order to encourage breeding.

“It makes them frisky,” Uğur Altaş said with a laugh, as he gestured towards the handsomely fed birds wandering—chicks in tow—through the grounds of his hazelnut factory.

Nuts about nuts

Seen from afar, Ordu might be thought to nurse a slightly unhealthy obsession with a basic foodstuff. But as the cornerstone of the global hazelnut industry, the province’s nut-centric ways are no laughing matter.

Roughly 75% of the world’s hazelnut supply is grown in Turkey, and a full one-third of that emanates from Ordu’s impossibly lush green hills. The province relies on the crop for up to 80% of its economic activity. “If there were no hazelnuts in Turkey, the price would go up fivefold,” said Irfan Balkanlıoğlu, the local governor.

Quite how a small region a few hours shy of the Georgian border came to practically corner the international hazelnut market is a source of some confusion to local farmers. Some point to the area’s ceaseless rain, erratic temperatures, and steep, rugged terrain, which make it ill-suited to cultivating most other produce. Others say that the authorities once took to planting hazelnut trees in order to temper regular landslides on the previously barren slopes.

But what is clear, Ordu natives hasten to add, is the superior quality of their end product.

“The unsaturated fat content is high, the spice is good, the aroma is the best,” says Teoman Önsel, branch manager at Sagra’s Sanset factory, which produces a string of hazelnut products, ranging from hazelnut marzipan to hazelnut chocolate wafers and dark chocolate hazelnut spread. “They’re definitely the best hazelnuts in the world.”

For over a decade, this once-neglected backwater prospered as demand for its product boomed among the growing middle classes in China and India. Ordu rolled out impressive new facilities and infrastructure off the back of its natural riches, while farmers expanded their gardens further up the precipitous peaks in order to reap the rewards of the surging price.

Frozen out

But in 2013, as Ordu prepped for another bumper August harvest, the honeymoon period ground to a jarring halt. A bout of severe frost in late March cut Turkey’s output from 660,000 tonnes (728,000 tons) in 2012 to 549,000 tonnes. The following year, unseasonably cold spring temperatures struck once more, and the country’s yield tumbled to 381,000 tonnes, according to the local price exchange, pitching thousands of locals into poverty. Many workers migrated elsewhere in pursuit of work; Ordu authorities were left to rue their dependence on a single crop.

“We lost everything, and I mean everything, to the frost last year,” said Ahmet Oğuz Aslan, the governor of Kumru sub-district, which lies an hour’s drive inland from Ordu city. His community, tucked amid a series of towering hazelnut-covered hills, struggled mightily as local pickings dropped from 11,000 tonnes in 2013 to zero last summer.

The disaster in Ordu has had serious repercussions further afield. Shortages have hiked the price for Turkish hazelnuts from $6 to $17, and pushed the good beyond many buyers’ budgets. “China had been demanding more and more, but this year—because the harvest was poor—they couldn’t afford as much and their demand was lower,” said Nejdet Gürsoy, general manager of Ordu’s Gürsoy factory, as he gestured at the empty truck scales, where farmers would ordinarily be lining up to deposit their loads to be weighed.

The price spike has also affected the world’s most famous hazelnut-chocolate spread. Italian chocolatier Ferrero first created Nutella soon after the Second World War, when chocolate was expensive and inaccessible and hazelnuts cheap and plentiful. It now snaps up about a quarter of the world’s hazelnut crop. But between Turkey’s freak weather and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, where much of the world’s cocoa is produced, the company feels assailed on all sides. “Prices have to be higher than they were two years ago, because all raw materials—not just hazelnuts—are getting more expensive,” a Ferrero executive, who asked not to be named, said.

Last year Ferrero bought Oltan, Turkey’s largest hazelnut producer, to safeguard its supply. Industry analysts expect this year’s harvest, which is now starting to come in, to be even bigger than average. Nonetheless Ferrero, among other hazelnut giants, is looking to diversify its planting and break Ordu’s stranglehold once and for all.

Watch out for the neighbors

With prices earlier this year reaching a record high, neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan have eagerly expanded their hazelnut plantations. Various South American countries and the US state of Oregon have also tried to boost their market share.

Ordu hazelnut producers are all too aware of the brewing battleground. “It’s an expensive product, so it’s natural that other countries are interested,” said Gürsoy, the factory manager. “If the hazelnut industry in Turkey doesn’t change some of its practices, the competition will only hurt us.”

But Ordu’s residents too are seeking to reduce their reliance on hazelnuts. They fear further poor harvests, which many believe are prompted by climate change. The local government is keen to reel in Gulf Arab tourists by marketing the area as a green, waterfall-packed “Hidden Heaven.” Some farmers have taken to keeping bees and uprooting hazelnut-bearing trees in favor of fruits and tea leaves. (Old habits die hard though: some peddle it into tea flavored with hazelnuts at a nearby plant.)

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest, however, that Ordu will maintain its lofty position in the hazelnut-growing world.

East Asia’s growing appetite for nuts, Turkey’s proximity to the Middle East—which consumes mountains of hazelnuts during the annual holy month of Ramadan—and the continued high demand for chocolate all bode well for Ordu’s supremacy. “In general, if you have hazelnuts, you have demand from the world,” Balkanlıoğlu, the governor, said.

Ordu farmers, many of whom appear to have been drawn to hazelnuts by the minimal effort needed to tend to them, also seem to have woken up to the necessity of taking better care of their trees, and local agriculture authorities are developing a cold-resistant strain that can weather future harsh frosts.

Finally, Ordu residents insist their province enjoys better health than their non-hazelnut-growing neighbors, as a direct consequence of their cherished crop. “Be sure to eat at least 10 hazelnuts every morning,” said Servet Sahin, Chairman of Ordu’s Chamber of Commerce, as we wrapped up our meeting. “It gives you energy and stops Alzheimer’s.”