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When Buket Ulukut first moved from Istanbul to a rural plot of land in the foothills of the Taurus Mountains in southern Turkey, she was leading a double life.

“I’d be taking calls from clients in Europe while out amidst the rows of peppers and eggplants, hoping they didn’t hear the rooster crowing in the background,” says Ulukut, who worked in the textile industry before establishing Tangala Goat Farm in Muğla’s serene Yaka village.

Since Ulukut settled in the area in 2008, her herd has grown from two goats to more than 50, producing milk that is made on-site into artisan cheeses sold throughout Turkey. Over the same decade, the number of Turks swapping the city for the countryside has also multiplied, driven by rising urban stresses and an increasingly stifling political climate.

Between 2015 and 2016, a period that saw a wave of urban terror attacks and a violent coup attempt, net migration out of Istanbul exceeded the number of people moving into Turkey’s largest metropolis for the first time in the city’s recent history. Frustration with the seemingly endless waves of “urban transformation” that have turned vast swaths of the city into construction sites; mounting political repression; and a struggling economy are among the factors driving urbanites out of Istanbul – if not out of the country altogether.

“People are fed up with bad news on TV, fed up waking up unhappy, fed up with their jobs and with traffic,” says Ahmet Berkay Atik of the environmental group Buğday. The program he coordinates, TaTuTa, which places volunteers on organic farms across Turkey, has recently seen rising numbers of both new farmers and Turkish, as opposed to international, volunteers. “As it gets more and more chaotic in the cities, people are looking for alternatives,” Atik says. “Some think they can find peace of mind in rural life.”

The transition, though, is not necessarily an easy one, as Bahadır Yasa found out when he moved to a village near Bayramiç, in western Turkey’s Çanakkale province, after a career working in management for international hotel chains.

“I had spent all my life in a suit and tie; I didn’t know anything about village life,” says Yasa, who eschewed retirement to set up the Agrida Farm, where he now has a 3,000-tree orchard and raises poultry while working to promote agritourism in the region. “I remember asking the villagers, ‘So, what do you do on Saturdays and Sundays?’ They laughed for almost a month about that. During my previous life, it was always, you know, ‘TGIF,’ but here the work never ends.”

The difficult labor of making a living off the land has been exacerbated in recent decades, critics say, by agricultural policies that favor imports and large industrial production over the small-scale farms that have historically predominated in Turkey. The percentage of people working in agriculture in Turkey has declined by half over the past 20 years as rural residents, especially young people, migrate to cities in search of better economic opportunities. The average age of a farmer in Turkey is now estimated at 55, compared to 31.7 in the population overall.

The more recent urban-to-rural relocations comprise only a small counterbalance to this much larger trend. But many of Turkey’s “new villagers” hope to not only change their own lives, but also help transform the country’s rural economies with an infusion of fresh energy, business savvy and entrepreneurial ideas.

“Urban people who move to village areas know there’s a lot of interest now in cities in food grown without pesticides, for example, or in getting food direct from farms rather than supermarkets,” says Efe Öç, a filmmaker who worked on a documentary series and now runs a website about people with a connection to cities who are trying to establish farms. Many of these former urbanites are working to develop homestay tourism in villages, and trying to build cooperatives through which they and their neighbors can earn more by selling their own value-added products.

“During my previous life, it was always, you know, ‘TGIF,’ but here the work never ends.”

Sibel Güdek, a former account executive with an advertising agency in Istanbul, saw this potential when her father started renovating an old family home in Budaklı Köyü, a five-house village in the pine-covered mountains above Kastamonu, in northern Turkey. “I saw there was a lot of empty land and untouched resources to utilize there, while the market for natural and healthy foods was growing, so I decided to create a brand, and market what we produce on our land,” says Güdek.

Her online business, Mom and Pop, sells bulgur and flour made from the Einkorn wheat she grows in Budaklı along with dried okra and a local variety of black-eyed peas. It also sells the jams, molasses, fruit leather and other preserves she makes along with the village women her business employs.

Another young entrepreneur, Ata Cengiz, has started a business, Tarlam Var (“I Have a Field”), that allows people to “buy” a tree and receive shipments of its walnuts, olives, tangerines or lemons while ensuring a steady profit for the farmer. “We work only with small farmers and make agreements to buy their harvest if they take care of the trees using good farming practices and no pesticides,” says Cengiz. “Our members know where their food comes from; they can even follow the development of ‘their’ tree online.”

Ulukut of Tangala also works largely with a subscriber model to sell her cheeses around the country. Her farm hosts cheese-making and beekeeping workshops, and this month she’s opening a guesthouse in her village so more people can experience rural life. Through her Tangala Project Platform, she’s also working to develop a “mobile dairy” concept that would give other small-scale livestock producers the ability to make their own cheese and other milk products for sale.

Even more ambitious is the “8100 Project” proposed by another dairy farmer, Aysun Sökmen, who sells raw milk from her cow herd in the Thrace region of Turkey direct to consumers and restaurants in Istanbul. “The idea is to build 100 communities in each of the 81 provinces of Turkey, focused on ecological agricultural practices that improve the health of the soil rather than killing it through plowing, spraying, and monoculture production,” says Sökmen.

Her vision, along with those of other Turkish urbanites-turned-agriculturalists, could be part of a way forward for struggling farmers and burnt-out city dwellers alike: “Neighbors, producing on the same land, nurturing the soil, and providing social support for each other, too.”

Jennifer Hattam and Aysun Sökmen and Buket Ulukut and Efe Öç

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