Chios, Greece – The employment situation for the people of Greece continues to grow more desperate each day, with some urbanites fleeing cities to work the land just like their forbearers did.
Greek unemployment – now the worst in Europe – reached 27.4 percent in the first three months of 2013, the government announced last week – the highest quarterly rate since such data began being collected in 1998.
The number of jobless Greeks has steadily risen since May 2008 when the recession struck, and the latest statistics show a five percent jump from a year ago.
Amid what may be the worst peacetime collapse of a developed economy, some Greeks have decided to go back to the land to make a living, and the government has strongly supported the shift. Greece generated a mere 3.6 percent of its economy from the agriculture sector last year.
Last February, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras launched a drive to reform and expand agriculture production, announcing a $468mn (350mn euro) fund to encourage agricultural entrepreneurship.
“There can be no economic growth without emphasis on the primary sector,” Samaras told parliament. His government has been setting up clusters of farmers in greenhouse and livestock farming and wants to do the same for fish farming, already a growth industry.
But for some who have taken the urban-to-rural plunge, it hasn’t been a soft landing.
With the wonky economy, the idea of heading back to the land to grow food has attracted some Greeks. And city folk didn’t wait for state support to get back to their rural roots.
For Damianos Zanaras, it was a chance to return to his native Chios after a lifetime in shipping. He spent tens-of-millions of dollars building a juice plant, financing the venture with his own savings as well as loans.
“Kambos Chiou” would in theory build its success by making a Greek export of the distinctively flavoured local tangerine as a juice, Zanaras told Al Jazeera, improving the lot of farmers in the process.
However, the reality has proven disappointing, because Zanaras overestimated local enthusiasm for the plan. “We’re still breaking a sweat to make ends meet. Times are hard and farmers don’t help,” he said.
Zanaras blamed the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy for “spoiling” farmers over the last 40 years. “Now that subsidies have stopped and people have to work hard, they won’t. They let their fruit drop and don’t bring it to the plant.”
Instead, Chians have sought their fortunes in tourism, or away from the island.
“There are no full time farmers in Chios anymore,” said the plant’s commercial director, Yannis Trantalis. “We tried contract farming, but it didn’t work. Most farmers didn’t want to commit. When people aren’t full-time farmers, they aren’t sure they can meet the production they’ve promised.”
Greek co-operatives were set up beginning in the 1960s to guarantee a minimum purchase price for produce, finding markets for it, and giving farmers the collective ability to set market rates.
Much of the difficulty in reviving Greek farming stems from the fact in the 1980s, those co-operatives were hijacked as political infrastructure, and never fulfilled their mission. Put bluntly, the socialists used co-operatives to funnel money to the faithful to generate votes.
“After Greece’s entry into the European Union and the arrival of socialism in Greece, these organisations … were transformed from organisations that served the farmer to organisations that served the party,” said Yannis Panagos, publisher of agriculture newspaper Agrenda.
European subsidies were a separate boon that coincided with the socialists’ rise to power in 1981. They roughly doubled what farmers made by selling their product. The combination of subsidies and party money created an environment in which co-operatives easily lost sight of their mission, and it led to uncompetitive farming practices.
“Instead of using this money as a tool to invest and increase efficiency of agriculture, [farmers] used it as an income resource,” said Agriculture Minister Athanasios Tsaftaris.
“They abandoned traditional products, shifted to monocultures, invested heavily in annual crops where the cost is very high; they exhausted a number of resources like water, fertilisers, energy. This increases costs dramatically, so this makes our agricultural products expensive, less competitive.”
The evidence of what Tsaftaris described is strongest on the Thessaly plain, Greece’s largest expanse of arable land. For decades it has pumped groundwater to increase yields in cash crops such as cotton and maize. It now faces an environmental disaster, as water tables have receded by hundreds of metres.
Unsurprisingly, Tsaftaris wants to help new farmers bypass the co-operative and subsidy system, and some of the most successful ones have done just that. On Chios island, where tangerine groves are largely neglected, Vangelis Xydas and his brother have managed to squeeze the successful Citrus brand out of their father’s tangerine grove.
“We stopped seeing citrus products as fruit and started seeing them as a raw material,” Xydas told Al Jazeera. Citrus sells tangerine-flavoured preserves, desserts, pastas and baked goods through a small but growing chain of fully owned retail outlets.
“Every day we fight to break out into exports,” Xydas said. “We’ve looked at going into the German market with Cocomat, which will decorate its Berlin showroom with our products.”
Like Zanaras, Xydas would like to be something of a prophet in his own land, channelling other farmers’ produce into his branded, manufactured goods. And like Zanaras, he’s been bitterly disappointed by the lack of support and interest.
“No one wants to know more about what I have done and how. No one asked me to show him how it’s done,” Zanaras said with a note of disbelief still in his voice. “People do see our example, and they see it as distant from them. They say we plugged ourselves into the right programme. It’s as though I don’t belong to this society. I feel aloof.”
He is not the only one. Vasilis and Roula Balas quit their high-powered information technology and marketing jobs in Athens to start a farm on their native Chios. “We wanted our family to grow up the way we had grown up, closer to nature,” said Balas.
The original plan was to make a living from cultivating mastic, the aromatic sap of a tree – which thrives nowhere else in the world – and is used as food flavouring or stomach-settling medicine.
“Both growth and recession are more apparent in the city than in the country. We did not experience the benefits of growth before, and we do not feel the depression now.“
– Vangelis Xydas, tangerine farmer
When the Balases’ twins were born last year, they realised they had to boost their farm income by doubling it up as a tourist attraction. That plan, however, ran up against local inflexibility.
“When I approached the tour operators’ association suggesting that I, a farmer, operate tours, there was uproar. ‘What business’, they said, ‘does a farmer have being a tour operator?'”
Although Balas convinced them to bring busloads of tourists to his farm, he came across a new problem. “I can’t sell them any mastic because the co-operative obliges me to sell my production to it. I’d have to buy back my own mastic from the co-op at a premium.”
The Balases have had to go back to their old trades as freelance consultants to supplement their income, but they said they haven’t regretted their decision to leave Athens for the farm.
Xydas agreed saying the countryside’s quality-of-life advantages can ultimately make up for some loss of income.
“You have a simpler way of life and lower costs. Both growth and recession are more apparent in the city than in the country. We did not experience the benefits of growth before, and we do not feel the depression now.”