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Big dreams come true in Turkey’s smallest district

Meltem Gözel’s day begins at 07.00 each morning. Before the sun has risen, she’s already at work in her greenhouses, tending to her mushrooms. As part of her morning checks, she always keeps a close eye on their growth. But it’s the heat, she tells us, that’s the most important factor.

“They are like babies,” she says. “Oh, does one of them have a fever?” She adjusts the temperature.

Meltem, 34 years old, hasn’t always been a mushroom farmer. She’s only been at it for about three years, which makes her still very much a “newbie,” as she puts it, by industry standards. But for Meltem and her children, cultivating mushrooms has already opened a new chapter in their lives.

They now live in Yalıhüyük, a rural district in south-west Turkey. Home to just 1,600 people, it’s Turkey’s smallest district by population. It’s also about as different as can be from the bustle of Istanbul, where Meltem had lived for many years with her husband and raised their three children. But in 2017, following her decision to divorce her husband, she moved herself and her children back to Yalıhüyük, where she had grown up.

They arrived in Yalıhüyük deeply saddened by the separation and full of anxiety about starting over. For her part, Meltem also wasn’t sure at first how she would support her family. She hadn’t been working while she was married, and job opportunities in the area were scarce. Not to be daunted, she found work wherever she could. At first, she took odd jobs during the day and, at night, made dumplings to sell to the locals.

But as she got her feet back under her, she began to look around. She knew that agriculture was one of the region’s major industries, and, as she’d always had a green thumb, she decided to give it a shot. In 2018, after consulting with local representatives of the national Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, she decided to start a mushroom business.

In one of Meltem’s greenhouses, newly-grown mushrooms are harvested for sale.

Mushroom cultivation is very beginner-friendly. The initial costs are low, and all you need to get started is a small space that can be kept dark. Even so, Meltem didn’t have any prior experience with growing mushrooms, so she reached out for help. She found it in a peer-learning programme hosted by the Göksu Taşeli Watershed Development Project, a joint effort by IFAD and the Government of Turkey to support small-scale farmers of all kinds throughout Turkey’s Central Anatolia region.

Through the programme, mushroom farmers of all experience levels teach and learn from each other. Meltem proved herself to be an exemplary student. “I learned new things from everyone I met, from one producer with 20 years of experience to another manufacturer with 5 years of experience,” she says.

Strict quality control procedures are carried out during each growing cycle.

Meltem’s business soon began to thrive. With anywhere between 3 and 5 growth cycles per year and each harvest yielding about 3 tons of product, mushroom cultivation is typically a lucrative endeavor. Moreover, as mushroom quality is usually high, little to no marketing is needed. Meltem sells her crop to intermediaries, who immediately place it in markets in the nearby cities of Konya, Antalya and Manavgat.

It didn’t take long for Meltem to expand her business, either. She soon established one greenhouse, then another, with support from the project. Her production area now spans 210 square meters. And, just as she learned from others, she’s now passing on her knowledge to other farmers. She’s happy to give advice – and she’s especially glad to help other women get started.

These days, Meltem’s phone rings practically nonstop. The news of her success has spread far, and people who want to start a mushroom business of their own are calling in from all over the country.

Today, as she finishes her morning greenhouse checks, the phone rings. It’s one of her regular callers, a woman who’s been following her advice closely. She and Meltem talk by phone nearly every day. Just like Meltem, she started her own mushroom business in the basement of her house – and she, too, is looking to expand her production area, having had good yields so far. In today’s call, she tells Meltem she’s thinking about purchasing a tent.

Later in the day, after having advised several other callers, it’s time to tend to her children and do some housework. Every now and then, she goes out to the greenhouses to check on her mushrooms. Her children sometimes tease her about it, saying, “You love your mushrooms more than us!”

Meltem loves her job very much indeed – because it allows her to support not only her family, but many other women just like herself.

Learn more about IFAD’s work in Turkey.