TBY talks to Mehmet Halis Bilden, Director General & Chairman of the Board of Directors at the General Directorate of Agricultural Enterprises (TİGEM), on prize-winning horses, Turkey's agricultural role in the region, and meeting local demand.

Mehmet Halis Bilden
Mehmet Halis Bilden was born in 1968. He completed his post-graduate education at the Department of Architecture in Engineering and Science Institute at the Gebze High Technology Institute. He started his career in 1995 and served as Executive Administrator for the municipalities of Istanbul, Diyarbakır, and Adana for 10 years. He served as the Head of Department, Member of Executive Board, and General Director in the Ministry of Agricultural and Rural Affairs between 2005 and 2008. He served as a Board Member of several departments under the authority of the same Ministry between 2007 and 2011. He was appointed as the Director General and the Chairman of the Board of Directors at the General Directorate of Agricultural Enterprises in May 2008.

What is TİGEM's relationship to the Ministry of Agriculture?

TİGEM is a state economic enterprise. We are related to the Ministry of Agriculture and the Undersecretariat of the Treasury. We make our long-term decisions and policies through negotiations with them and in harmony with their long-term national policies. In terms of internal issues, we are independent. We are one of the oldest establishments in Turkey—our history goes back almost 700 years, when an Ottoman farm in Bursa called Karacabey was established in 1330. We have two main activities: plant production and animal breeding. As you know, the Ottoman Empire governed land on three continents for around 600 years, and horses played a very important role in that history. We are performing these activities on 371,000 hectares of land.

How significant is Turkish agriculture to the region?

Since our inception, we have been one of the most important actors in the agriculture sector. During the worldwide food scarcity through World Wars I and II, TİGEM was insurance for Turkey, as 1.5% of the agriculture area of Turkey is TİGEM's land.

In 2010, according to World Bank statistics, Turkey was ranked 7th in terms of the value of agricultural production in the world, with $61.7 billion. In Europe, we are ranked first. These figures demonstrate our country's significance and where we stand, and TİGEM's share in it shows our importance. Climatic conditions in Turkey vary greatly from moderate and warm Mediterranean climate to cold and harsh continental winters. Also, 3,000 out of 13,000 plant varieties grown are endemic to Anatolia, which is a clear advantage for breeding new varieties.

We produce certified cereal seeds and breeding animals to be sold to Turkish farmers. According to our research, we are the number one certified cereal seed producer in the world with 200,000 tons in 2011. Our 2015 goal is to reach 400,000 tons and meet 50% of Turkey's total requirement.

Of course, we cooperate with other countries from time to time. For instance, we exported 5,000 tons of certified wheat seed to Sudan during the 2008-2009 period. However, our main purpose is to meet our country's demand. We also cooperate with private sector companies, especially in vegetable and fruit production.

What is the potential for foreign interest in TİGEM's role in Arabian horse breeding?

We are one of the leading horse-breeding organizations in the Middle East. We have around 1,200 horses, all purebred Arabian, on three of our farms: Karacabey, Anadolu, and Sultansuyu. The total area we use for horse breeding is around 20,000 hectares. In Turkey, there are eight racetracks, and the country is well positioned for horse breeding. About half of the horses in Turkey are Thoroughbreds, and the rest are Arabian. In 2011, 35% of the Arabian horses running in national races were of TİGEM origin. However, more than 50% of the total prizes awarded in this breed's races were won by our horses. This reflects the quality of our horses. On the other hand, our process with a horse does not finish when we sell it to an owner. As long as it runs in races, we take a breeder's share out of its award and we purchase top performers of these horses back when they are retired from races in order to use them as stallions. Owners are obliged to sell these horses back to us. For example, we have a prize stud stallion named Caş. His offspring are well-known performers, showing real speed and power. Caş is around 23 years old, but he and his offspring have won more than $50 million in prize money so far.

What role will Turkish agriculture play in the future in a global sense?

Turkey is a net exporter in agriculture. Up until now, we have sustained our people, a population of 75 million with 35 million tourists every year. The world population has doubled over the last 60 years. The population is increasing rapidly and continuously, together with the demand for food. Meanwhile, the production area is reducing. Every year, 12 million hectares of soil are lost in the world due to environmental change, which equates to half of Turkey's entire agricultural land.

With these realities in front of us, Turkey has a valuable potential for large-scale agricultural production, including various vegetables and fruits. On the other hand, agricultural policies pursued by our government in last few years will be more and more fruitful in the longer term. In the near future, I can say that Turkey will be a regional center for both animal and plant products.