Economic Downturn Spurs Return to Family Farms

In the face of economic hardships, many young Greeks return to work the family olive groves that have been kept in their families for generations.

Jun. 13, 2017
By Joanne Drawbaugh

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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.

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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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