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Consistently ranked among the Top 10 tea-producing countries in the world and frequently in the Top 5, Turkey today is a tea powerhouse on both the production and consumption sides of the equation.  However, that has not always been the case.  From the time the first tea seedlings were imported to Turkey from Japan and China in 1888 until the tea industry in Turkey came into its own in the 1970s, the story of tea in Turkey was one of fits and starts.

At the end of the Nineteenth Century, after the successful introduction of tea in Batumi (Batum in Turkish), a city on the coast of the Black Sea and the capitol of Adjara in the Republic of Georgia, officials at the Department of Agriculture in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire decided that Bursa, with its hills, forests, and natural springs, could be the ideal site for growing tea.  Sadly, Bursa did not pan out and the dream of growing tea in Turkey faded away along with the Ottoman Empire.

Then, in 1918, the emerging Republic of Turkey secured the services of a famous botanist from Mardin province, Mr. Ali Riza Erten, to identify suitable locations for tea cultivation.  Despite a thorough investigation and analysis, Mr. Erten’s efforts proved premature.  In a region still reeling from World War I, the focus was on reconstruction activities and restoration of basic services.  Plans for a local tea industry were once again set aside.

Six years later, the Turkish government passed legislation to encourage the cultivation of tea and other crops in the Turkish city of Rize, in part by waiving land taxes for 10 years.  This was largely in response to political developments in Georgia that resulted in a large influx of people with experience in tea cultivation.  For several years, the tea industry began to flourish, but with this experience came an increased understanding of the myriad factors – often not easily controlled – influencing successful tea cultivation and production.  Soon, the burgeoning industry faltered and farmers who had been cultivating tea switched to hazelnuts, oranges, and lemons.

Not to be discouraged by earlier failures, the Turkish government once again set its sights on developing a local tea industry just three years following its previous demise.  To jump start the industry, the government distributed over 200,000 tea seedlings free of cost to any farmers willing to take up the challenge.  However, the government’s lack of foresight in mitigating the uncertainty inherent in tea cultivation brought the industry to a standstill.

In 1935, a scientific team was assembled to evaluate the potential and pitfalls of tea cultivation in Turkey.  This team, headed by Dr. Muhlis Erkmen, recommended the creation of a tea-processing industry and government guarantees of the purchase of tea that could not be sold on the open market.  Finally, the tea industry was able to establish a foothold and tea cultivation began in earnest.  By the end of 1939, over 350 acres of tea were under cultivation, growing to over 4,200 acres by 1945.  Continued government supports encouraged tea farmers to forge ahead.  In addition, the onset of World War II meant a sudden fall in tea imports, providing local tea farmers with the opportunity to fill the gap.

Additional monetary incentives and new water channels to reduce the loss of irrigation water were put into place in 1956.  With those measures, the number of acres devoted to tea cultivation continued to rise.  By the end of 1962, nearly 40,000 acres of land were dedicated to tea cultivation.  Soon thereafter, Turkey was able to meet all domestic demand for tea without resorting to imports and, in 1963, for the first time ever, Turkey exported 141 tons of tea.  However, the steady rise in domestic tea consumption throughout the 1960s kept exports to a minimum.

With the tea industry firmly established, focus could shift to improving the quality of the leaf.  Inconsistencies in harvesting led to a lack of uniformity in taste.  Farmers were encouraged to pluck actively growing buds along with two leaves to ensure the highest quality as well as to improve methods of controlling pests and nourishing and pruning the plants.

In 1973, CAYKUR, the Turkish tea board, was set up to oversee the tea industry.  Greater control and licensing of tea farmers was an important turning point in ensuring the viability of the tea industry in Turkey.  By 1985, tea was being cultivated on over 100,000 acres.  The Chernobyl disaster in 1986 negatively affected the tea trade and Turkish tea was withdrawn from the world market because of fears that it was contaminated by radioactive materials.  A slowdown in the Turkish tea industry persisted for several years, but provided the opportunity for the industry to regroup and take a much-needed look at ways to improve.

Today, 65% of all Turkish tea – primarily black tea – is produced under the auspices of the Turkish government, with the other 35% produced by the private sector.  In recent years, Turkey has stepped up production of the tea it exports, with most of its tea destined for countries in the European Union, former Soviet states, India (surprisingly), and the United States.

A special thanks to my dear friend Fatma Atike Curran for sending me the article from the International Journal of Agriculture and Biology (“History of Tea Production and Marketing in Turkey” by M. A. Klasra, K. M. Khawar, and M. Aasim, 2007) upon which my post is based.

Photo “Turkey 250” is copyright under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License to the photographer Sara Yeomans and is being posted unaltered (source)
Photo “İnce belli çay bardağı” is copyright under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License to the photographer Marc Wellekötter and is being posted unaltered (source)

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