As in much of the world, serious measures have been taken by my government to prevent Covid-19 pandemic outbreaks. In Turkey, all public areas are closed but employees in critical sectors can run their jobs. For farmers like me, we can continue production: We’re allowed to work because everybody needs to eat.
Yet producing food and selling it are two different things. It is possible to have one but not the other. Because of coronavirus, the state has closed areas where people gather, including fruit and vegetable stands as well as livestock trading markets where many people go to buy their food. Although stores where food and basic needs remain open, lots of farmers have suffered because they have lost their connections to customers.
This challenge also has created surprising opportunities. I am happy to share with you the story of Uncle Hasan. In Turkey, we confer the honorific title “uncle” upon beloved senior citizens. He’s a small-time farmer who nearly went out of business because of coronavirus.
Then the internet came to the rescue.
I came to know Uncle Hasan, whose full name is Hasan Ali Agus, through the business of agriculture. My farm is in a village near Izmir, Turkey’s third-largest city, sometimes known to Westerners by its Greek name, “Smyrna.” I have a breeder heifer farm and grow corn, barley, wheat, clover, and cuticle to feed my animals. I also produce potatoes and olives for people.
A friend told me about Uncle Hasan. He was in financial trouble and wanted to sell a couple of heifers. So I met him. He told me that Covid-19 had devastated his business. He could not receive payments from his dairy customers. He could not even get hay to feed his cows. He had fallen into debt.
I learned that Uncle Hasan had another business. He cultivated seedlings and sold them to farmers who raised fruits and vegetables. He could not sell these, either, on account of the market closures.
This was a big problem for Uncle Hasan, but it gave me an idea. The markets might be closed, but the internet is open and cargo companies still make shipments. I reached out to an old friend from my university days. He’s a software engineer now. I asked him: Can we start a website that would allow Uncle Hasan to sell his seedlings to people he’s never met?
I’d never sold anything on a website, but I knew that many of our fellow citizens grow fruit and vegetables on their balconies and in their gardens-and that they’re thinking more about the importance of this during the coronavirus pandemic, which has disrupted supply chains and led to food shortages.
So we set up a virtual shop for Uncle Hasan, putting 19 different products up for sale. I promoted it on Instagram. All of a sudden, the orders poured in. Many customers wanted the seedlings so that they could grow their own food at home. Others were motivated by a sense of charity: They just wanted to help a farmer in need.
In three days, Uncle Hasan earned as much money as he used to make in two years. Demand was so strong that the website collapsed. We got it working again and kept on selling. On the fifth day, we had to stop accepting purchases because we had run out of supplies. Now we’re back in business again.
The success of this enterprise gives me hope because for many years I worried that my fellow Turks did not give enough value to agriculture. People who live in cities often fail to understand the difficulties we face as we try to grow food. Moreover, many farmers suffered from agricultural imports.
If I could wish away the existence of Covid-19, I would do it without thinking twice. Turkey is a top-10 country for its number of confirmed cases: more than 100,000. We’ve also counted more than 2,600 deaths due to the disease. These horrible numbers rise every day.
Amid this tragedy, we must look for the good. I’m seeing something positive in the way people are adopting a new attitude toward farmers. They have gained an appreciation for the importance of local farmers and what we do.
For farms this epidemic can be a revolution. I am hopeful that farming will be viewed as a prestigious profession.
Tiny seeds can grow into big trees-and the seedlings sold on Uncle Hasan’s virtual shop may help improve the status of farmers everywhere.