One might imag­ine that ef zin, the Greek term for wel­fare or more col­lo­qui­ally, “the good life”, would be harder to come by lately in Greece, a coun­try whose eco­nomic hard­ships are well-known to the rest of the world. Since the onset of the cri­sis, Greece’s GDP has decreased by 25 per­cent. Household spend­ing has fallen by 40 per­cent.

Fields of land that for decades were aban­doned are return­ing to be cul­ti­vated and pro­duc­tive again.- Kostas Liris, Iris IKE

Many young Greeks are turn­ing to their fam­ily olive groves as a means of chas­ing a bet­ter real­ity. In the 1970s and 1980s, many of these young peo­ple flocked to met­ro­pol­i­tan cen­ters in pur­suit of pro­fes­sional careers.

As the secu­rity that used to be pro­vided by these jobs con­tin­ues to dwin­dle though, “fields of land that for decades were aban­doned are return­ing to be cul­ti­vated and pro­duc­tive again,” says Kostas Liris, an agron­o­mist, olive oil expert and New York International Olive Oil Competition (NYIOOC) panel leader who founded the com­pany Iris IKE to pro­vide con­sult­ing in the agri-food indus­try.

Liris notes that a large pro­por­tion of these new farm­ers are between the ages of 30 and 45, hold a uni­ver­sity degree, speak for­eign lan­guages, and have trav­eled the world. Not only are they an eru­dite sec­tion of the pop­u­la­tion, but “they are not afraid to admit their rel­a­tively lim­ited knowl­edge regard­ing the land and they usu­ally look for syn­er­gies with spe­cial­ists in order not to make mis­takes.”

As a result of these new farm­ers’ efforts, agri­cul­ture now con­tributes to 4.2 per­cent of the Greek econ­omy, up 1.1 per­cent from its share when the cri­sis began in 2008. According to the Agricultural University of Athens, this con­tri­bu­tion is dou­ble the fig­ures seen in any other mem­ber European Union mem­ber coun­try.

While the unem­ploy­ment rate for peo­ple under 25 is 48 per­cent and 30 per­cent for those between the ages of 25 and 34, employ­ment in the agri­cul­tural sec­tor is on the rise for the first time in 20 years, as per a recent report by the Greek Statistical Service.

In 2008, the pro­por­tion of Greek work­ers employed by agri­cul­ture dipped to a 35-year low of 11 per­cent. In 2015, that num­ber climbed to 12.9 per­cent, with roughly half of all new farm­ers com­ing from cities. Al Jazeera recently reported that the Association of Young Farmers has found that the pop­u­la­tion of farm­ers between the ages of 18 and 40 has increased 15 per­cent since these hard­ships first befell the nation.

Though the pri­mary sec­tor is expe­ri­enc­ing a renewed energy and robust growth as of late, recently con­verted farm­ers do not enter re-enter the fam­ily enter­prise with­out fac­ing a few hur­dles. Greek mon­e­tary issues and bureau­cracy have made it some­what dif­fi­cult for these young peo­ple to receive fed­eral funds that are meant to be avail­able for them to use. Banks have ceased loan­ing money to even suc­cess­ful busi­nesses, and the gov­ern­ment sold the Agricultural Bank of Greece to a pri­vate bank in order to cover some of the nation’s debts.

Kostas Liris (Photo: NYIOOC)

Still, the Ministry of Rural Development and Food released a report on April 25th that over 15,000 peo­ple applied for the 12,000 avail­able EU sub­si­dies allo­cated for new Greek farm­ers this year, com­pared to 11,400 in 2014 and 8,600 in 2009. This year, the gov­ern­ment sought to cap­i­tal­ize off of this growth, rais­ing farm­ers’ income tax from 13 per­cent to 22 per­cent. Higher still, is the 45 per­cent income tax levied on those indi­vid­u­als whose income exceeds €43,600.

Greek farm­ers con­tinue to adopt new prac­tices to coun­ter­act these dif­fi­cul­ties. In the past, farm­ers sold their olive oil in bulk to coun­tries like Spain and Italy rather than devel­op­ing their own brands for con­sumers. Today, Greek farm­ers take advan­tage of the extra value added by these oper­a­tions.

Farmers do not seek to gain prof­its by pro­duc­ing mass amounts of their prod­ucts, instead of serv­ing a more pres­ti­gious niche mar­ket that val­ues high-qual­ity goods. They reach this mar­ket some­times through online shops, but more often through importers and dis­trib­u­tors, who yield a smaller profit to the farm­ers but pro­vide a more cost-effec­tive sales net­work. They’ve fur­ther shown their new­found com­mit­ment to inde­pen­dence through a move­ment known as “Without Middlemen” which, since 2012, has hosted impromptu mar­kets in cities, giv­ing farm­ers an oppor­tu­nity to deliver their goods directly to Greek cus­tomers. The move­ment allows farm­ers to max­i­mize prof­its while low­er­ing prices for their peers who have been hit just as hard by the cri­sis.

Ioanna Kanellopoulou

Perhaps this new trend in Greek olive oil pro­duc­tion is best exem­pli­fied by Ioanna Kanellopoulou, who began her career as a young jour­nal­ist and the mother of two chil­dren. In this first stage of her pro­fes­sional path, Kanelopoulou found her­self work­ing long days for a small salary in a role that didn’t per­mit much extra time with her fam­ily. Looking for her par­tic­u­lar brand of ef zin, Kanelopoulou turned her gaze towards her grandfather’s land, aim­ing to begin pro­duc­ing her own brand of olive oil.

Admitting that, like many of her peers, she knew lit­tle about grow­ing olives, Kanelopoulou reached out to Liris for his sup­port in her endeav­ors. Just a year later, she won a Gold Award at the NYIOOC for her EVOO, My Precious Olive Tree, which she con­tin­ues to sell online.

While there are a mul­ti­tude of new olive farm­ers aris­ing from the ashes of the Greek finan­cial cri­sis, Kanellopoulou embod­ies the traits nec­es­sary to rise to the top of the com­pe­ti­tion. She knows the real poten­tial of her land, the mar­ket, and, most impor­tantly, how to ask for help from those who are well-versed in re-engi­neer­ing a fal­ter­ing olive grove. From this, she was able to cre­ate a high-qual­ity, unique prod­uct.

Among the polit­i­cal and finan­cial wheel­ing and deal­ing that occurs as offi­cials attempt to end Greece’s finan­cial hardhsips, there is a por­tion of the nation’s pop­u­la­tion that has com­mit­ted them­selves to get­ting their hands dirty and find­ing a bet­ter life on their own. The Greek pri­mary sec­tor is not only grow­ing in mon­e­tary value but also in the her­itage it is hand­ing back to a dis­il­lu­sioned pop­u­la­tion.

A piece of land and some seeds can not only pro­vide finan­cial sta­bil­ity and superb prod­ucts, but also a reminder of Greek people’s strength as a whole. In Liris’s own words, “in a fast food world there will always be a place for good food, wine and extra vir­gin olive oil.”


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