Cotton, as white and soft as it is as a fiber, is a tough bush – and Qaratel Quliyeva’s hands carry the marks of the hard work.
"I worked in a kolkhoz [collective farm] in Qilincli village [now Mammadli] until I was 50,” recalls the farmer, now 75. “I cultivated cotton, picked it, cleaned it, every day, for decades. I was able to produce up to 150 kg of cotton."
It was wearing, yet Quliyeva has fond memories. "Everybody was friendly, especially during the harvest. We used to drink tea during the breaks and eat lunch all together. Those were happy times."
Those times are long gone and the once-thriving Azerbaijan cotton industry was one of the casualties of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Up to the 1980s, cotton accounted for 25% of the agricultural revenue and Azerbaijan was a leading producer alongside the Central Asian republics of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. In the 1990s the sector went into freefall - the 300,000 dedicated hectares in the 1980s shrank to 61,000 hectares in 2002, according to official statistics. Productivity dipped five-fold, from an average of 9,000 kg fiber per hectare to merely 1,800.
The turmoil of the 1990s, the civil war over the breakaways region of Nagorno-Karabakh, and the sudden disappearance of an established state system, drove the sector to decay. Then the oil boom gave the final blow, as the flood of foreign investment arrived to explore oil and gas fields in the Caspian Sea; this made cotton, and agriculture by large, irrelevant.
The history of the cotton crop pre-dates the time the bolsheviks took today’s Azerbaijan by storm - Haji Zeynalabdin Tagiyev, born in 1823, founded the country’s first cotton mill while women’s rights’ advocate Hamideh Javanshir, wife of the acclaimed writer Djalil Memmedquluzade, opened a school for village girls and employment for women in a cotton processing factory, which she had established. The Soviets strengthened the production, turning cotton into Azerbaijan’s white gold - it worked until the USSR existed.
Ilham Asuraliyev, at the helm of a manufacturing factory in Barda, experienced firsthand the decline and fall.
“Through the 1980s around 100,000 hectares were planted with cotton in Barda, and in 2015 we had 1,162,” laments the 55 year old who has been working in the cotton industry for 31 years." “Since independence the oil has covered it all." Barda, about 127km north of the capital Baku has been one of the cotton capital of the country for decades, alongside Beylagan, Zardab, Sabirabad, Saatli.
It was not shiny and happy, and in Azerbaijan, as in Central Asia, children were a key workforce, and they still are. Ziliza Javadova was 15 when she started picking cotton. “Back then everyone was worked for the collective farm,” recalls the 74-year-old farmer from Mammadli, a village in Barda region. Only our family every day had a harvest of at least 500 kg of cotton."
Barda’s oldest manufacture dates back to 1939, and in its heyday, the region boasted seventeen collection points for raw cotton: in each harvest, each of them would receive up to 10,000 tonnes. The number went progressively down - after 1991, the land that used to be part of the collective farms was privatized, and the soil was converted to wheat and onion. Currently, only two factories are operating. What cotton remains, mainly supplies the domestic textile industry with the export reaching primarily Russia and Turkey.
Since 2015, dropping low oil prices have hit hard and the government has renewed its push towards diversifying the economy - and farmers are hoping cotton is set for a new life. In August 2016, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev visited the heart of cotton production Sabirabad, about 127 km north of Baku, and announced a plan to boost the sector and “triple the cotton production from 100,000 tons in 2016 to 300,000 tons in 2017.”
Ali Aliyev cheered the intention. Cotton has been the life of the farmer from Barda who started picking at the age of 12 - now 58 - he is calling for more investment to revive a crop that he thinks is quintessential to Azerbaijan’s economy.
“In 2015 the price was 0.40 manat ($0.22) per kilo, this year  it increased to 0.50 manat ($0.27). To stimulate people’s interest [to produce], the right price should be 0.80 manat ($0.43) or 1 manat ($0.54) per kilo."
Javanova owns 1.5 hectares of land dedicated to cotton. “I’ll sign a contract with the factory so they will help us in supplying seeds, fertilizers or provide tractors. We sell 1 kg for 0.50 manat (($0.27) to the factory. But this year the cold weather arrived earlier, so we have to sell it for 0.10 AZN ($0.05)."
“It is hard to cultivate cotton today,” laments Quliyeva. “There is not any benefit, so people plant wheat on those fields that used to be covered with white gold.”