Sitting at the confluence of two large rivers flowing down from the Great Caucasus, Zagatala is Azerbaijan’s hazelnuts heaven. Across the northern district bordering Georgia sprawl over half of the country’s orchards - about 17,000 hectares of the country’s 31,814 are concentrated in the region.
Azerbaijan is the world’s fourth largest exporter of hazelnut, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) - projections for 2017 are a total of 20,000 tonnes produced, up from the 15,000 in 2016. The slump in oil and gas prices pushed the Azerbaijani government to diversify its economy, supporting specifically the agricultural sector.
In October 2016 President Ilham Aliyev established with a Presidential Decree the Azerbaijan Export and Investment Promotion Foundation, AZPROMO, an entity aimed at supporting and promoting “Made in Azerbaijan” products around the world – including hazelnuts. In 2016 Ferrero, the world’s largest buyer of hazelnuts, started purchasing large quantities of Azerbaijan’s hazelnuts which are mainly of the ata-baba quality.
For most farmers, the crop is a family business - take Valiyeva Fatmat. Her family’s hazelnut trees sprawl over ten hectares, a little treasure they received from the government after the break-up of the Soviet Union. The 39 -year-old school teacher and her husband Nazir Muradov struggle to keep up with the harvest. The nuts generally ripe by the end of July and are harvested from mid-August to mid-September and the couple hire scores of local workers, mainly women, to collect the harvest.
On average, pickers receive about AZN12-15 ($7-8.8), and each can harvest about 25-30 kilos per day. The harvested hazelnuts must be cleaned from husk, which gives extra weight to the unshelled nuts - this job is usually done by hand, however a few farmers have invested in the purchase of ad-hoc machines, which perform the task mechanically. Tural Muradov is one of them - most of his clients are neighbors. Usually, he does not take money from them, just the payment provided by the hazelnuts. One 50 kg. sack of product for 10 cleaned 50 kg sacks. He also hires people to help him with it.
Farmers and producers like Fatmat are connected in a consortia like Azerbaijan’s hazelnut producer and exporter consortium (AHEC). Ismayil Orujev, the consortium’s director, maintains that about 35 percent of the district population relies on the crop. “It is mainly a family business,” he adds, “with plantations ranging from backyard gardens to a few hectares.” In the long term, Orujev looks at involving small businessmen from other regions to develop a strong exporting network.
Once the nuts are collected, farmers in Zagatala take the harvest to one of the 18 processing factories in the district. Each chooses the factory depending upon the best price they can fetch for their products.
Each factory employs between 60 and 80 workers who receive about AZN350-450 ($200-260) per month for up to eight months which is the usual length of the season. It is not rare to see entire families working together in one single factory.
Text edited by Monica Elena