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  • Turkey's prized harvest of Damascus roses at a rose-oil plant in Isparta, Turkey, May 31, 2015.

    Turkey's prized harvest of Damascus roses at a rose-oil plant in Isparta, Turkey, May 31, 2015. | Photo: Reuters

Published 3 July 2015

"There is a lack of a concerted effort to preserve the business, so it is in danger," said the owner of a family rose-oil business.

As rose farmers in southwest Turkey harvest their colorful and fragrant fields, the farming tradition, largely maintained by Syrian refugees, is struggling to stay alive.

The Turkish town of Isparta, home to 4,000 acres of precious bright-pink Damascus rose fields, is the largest producer of Damascus roses in the world. While the fields of flowers are a stunning sight, the real commodity is the expensive essential rose oil extracted from its petals.

It takes 2 million roses, amounting to about four tons of flowers, to produce 2.2 lbs of pure rose essence, which hits the market for about US$8,300, or more if the flowers are organically grown.

Most of the rose harvest is destined for France's luxury brands that use rose oil as a perfume base to lengthen the scent of floral fragrances, but it is also supplied Mecca's Grand Mosque.

But cultivating the crop is not all roses. Turkey's production has been in decline for two decades, and producers increasingly face challenges.

"We cannot obtain enough flowers, and there is a lack of a concerted effort to preserve the business, so it is in danger," said Nuri Ercetin, who runs an almost 60-year old family rose-oil processing business.

This year, rose farmers expected output to be down by 20 percent after a spring frost impacted crops.

Steady migration away from rural areas and a shift toward less labor-intense crops are contributing to the decline in the rose cultivation tradition. Filling labor gaps, many migrant workers and Syrian refugees are employed in the rose sector as farm laborers.

While the flowers are delicate, the work of harvesting is hard. Roses must be cut before the morning dew on their petals dry, and pickers must get the flowers to processing plants within two hours of harvesting to preserve the valuable fragrance.

According to rose-oil producer Ercetin, the harvest season is always a “race against time.”

The Damascus rose, also called Damask, is a 30-petal pink rose named after the Syrian capital. Renowned for its precious fragrance, Damascus roses are also medicinal and edible, and their delicately flavored petals can be used directly in cooking, or for making rose water or herbal tea.  

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