Production

The Murky Waters of Greek Agriculture and the Way Out

Jan. 12, 2013
By Costas Vasilopoulos

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As more urban Greeks return to their rural roots, many of these new farm­ers find them­selves lost in their effort to respond to the chal­lenge. (Photo: Simon aka Flyblog)

Back to the vil­lage

For ages, people in Greece relied heav­ily on the land to get essen­tial goods for their sur­vival, like wheat which gave flour, pota­toes, olives, veg­eta­bles and fruits. During the big urban waves of the 1950’s and 60’s, the big cities were flooded with new­com­ers and the coun­try­side was aban­doned. Apart from the awry devel­op­ment and expan­sion this brought to the cities, urban­ism is now con­sid­ered to have been an inhibit­ing factor for devel­op­ment, since its net result was over­crowd­ing and unem­ploy­ment in the urban areas and unused farm lands in the rural areas.

This uneven progress now requires a price to be paid: the finan­cial crisis, which is here to stay, has forced many city dwellers to return to their vil­lages and home­steads and start over by cul­ti­vat­ing the family land. But with no con­ti­nu­ity in land care and no knowl­edge being trans­ferred because there is no one to convey them the know-how, new farm­ers often find them­selves lost in their effort to respond to the chal­lenge. Instructional pro­grams are offered by the state to teach them the job, but noth­ing can make up for such a gap of prac­ti­cal knowl­edge.

Specifically in the olive oil sector where more than half of the new farm­ers are occu­pied, there are even more prob­lems: drought has caused reduced olive oil yield in many places, recent hail­storms in south­ern ter­ri­to­ries dete­ri­o­rated the sit­u­a­tion by hit­ting hard on trees and drupes, large quan­ti­ties of fresh olive oil are being stolen every­where, olive trees are being cut down to become fire­wood since petro­leum is very expen­sive, olive oil prices have been swing­ing high and low and the clas­si­cal inef­fi­ca­cies of the state to pro­mote the good (and that of the pro­duc­ers to form coali­tions) are noto­ri­ous.

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The psy­cho­log­i­cal factor

These phe­nom­ena were always present, but now they are more fre­quent, more dis­cussed and much more impor­tant; the steal of 400 kilos of oil from a farm­house in Thessaly last month can now be cat­a­strophic for the farmer, and poverty pushes poten­tial thieves to take every­thing, from oil to machin­ery and live­stock.

In dif­fi­cult predica­ments, psy­chol­ogy plays a crit­i­cal role and an in-depth appre­hen­sion of the sit­u­a­tion is impor­tant. Panic, which is con­stantly repro­duced and mag­ni­fied by the media, is an unwanted part­ner that blinds people from under­stand­ing that not all others are thieves and not every­one will be robbed.

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Young farm­ers must be able to com­pre­hend that, despite vio­la­tions and unfa­vor­able weather, the com­mu­nity has strong bonds that can’t be easily broken. Land can be the solu­tion for many, and things will start to get better if they try hard enough. Opportunities come and go amid the crisis and they must grasp one or two of them. The weather will again be their ally, and patience and per­sis­tence are required.

The light at the end of the tunnel

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Of course not every­thing is obscure and ret­ro­gres­sive. The lack of knowl­edge about the land can be to some degree com­pen­sated by ambi­tious farm­ers who con­stantly search for new farm­ing tech­niques, who uti­lize modern tech­nol­ogy to make the best prod­ucts, who con­tact mar­kets and poten­tial cus­tomers via the web and adver­tise their goods on the inter­net.

The more rest­less and imag­i­na­tive you are, the more pros­per­ous your busi­ness will be. There are many cases of back-to-the-vil­lage people who have man­aged to stand out from the crowd and impress the public: snail breed­ing, organic olive oil pro­duc­tion, hydro­ponic cul­ti­va­tions, truf­fle farm­ing, are all cases of rather unusual but lately prof­itable activ­i­ties. The best exam­ple is of a man who gets paid well to roam the moun­tains around his vil­lage and col­lect wild edible veg­eta­bles, which are then sent to fancy restau­rants in Athens (green boiled veg­gies is a common dish in Greece).

What is more, the state has iden­ti­fied the prob­lem and started to rent land to young farm­ers for a sym­bolic annual cost of 20 euros per acre. The Church of Greece is also con­tem­plat­ing giving away its prop­er­ties to farm­ers, in a ges­ture of good­will but also of sub­stan­tial sup­port. Cash starts to slowly flow again and, accord­ing to state offi­cials, SMEs (Small and Medium-sized Enterprises), the back­bone of the econ­omy, will have the chance to be funded from a repos­i­tory of approx­i­mately €500 mil­lion.

Eventually, every­thing boils down to the fact that if the new farm­ers are com­pe­tent enough and able to main­tain a pos­i­tive pos­ture towards the crisis-born obsta­cles, these newly-bred land lovers will suc­ceed.