Opinion: Back to farming

POSTED: 09/7/11 1:41 PM

It is almost attractive to complain when the economy is going south, jobs are hard to find and pensioners see their benefits taken to the slaughterhouse. The world got to know Greece as the ultimate destination for a romantic holiday and also as the country that came close to singlehandedly sinking the European Union. That’s the thing with Greeks: they love money and they cannot get enough of spending it – until recently. But look what’s happening in that country: between 2008 and 2010 the number of jobs in agriculture increased sharply by 38,000. How come? This article from the English-language Greek newspaper Kathimerini highlights a trend that could also work in St. Maarten for people who are unable to find a decent job.
“Here you can go a week without spending a single euro over here,” says a man who moved back to Crete two years ago to live in the village of his birth. “You get fresh food from your farm and if you need something extra, like olive oil for example, you can get it from a fellow farmer. You only need money to pay for your gas and bills,” he says.
He is not alone. For the first time in years, Amari Valley in the island’s Rethymno district has turned green again as fields have been cleared and put back to use as farms.
Recent data on farming in Greece shows that the number of jobs in the sector has gone up by 38,000 between 2008 and 2010. This increase is in stark contrast to the grim statistics regarding rising unemployment across most other sectors.
However, a closer examination of the data shows that these born-again farmers are for the most part pensioners trying to make some extra money — particularly by cutting down on their cost of living. Between 22 and 32 percent of those who have taken up farming in the past couple of years are aged between 45 and 64 years old. Some 70 percent of the latecomers in the Epirus region in northern Greece are over 65.
Giorgos Christonakis, a former employee at Hellenic Petroleum, lives between Athens and Amari. “After I retired, I went to look for a house in the village. I have since planted vegetables, I have my own olive trees and I plan to grow wheat so I can make my own bread,” he says. His children, he says, are not too keen on moving to Crete, so he has to travel between places. “But if the state breaks down and I end up losing my pension, what will happen then? At least we will have an alternative; we won’t starve to death.”
A friend of his, 60-year-old Pandelis Zoumboulakis, grows beans and tomatoes in that same valley. Zoumboulakis, a former municipal employee, retired two years ago but has yet to receive his first pension payment. His housing loan installment cannot wait, however. “I get an 800-euro advance on my pension each month. We are lucky my mother chips in to help,” he says.
His children are now independent, and the couple has returned to its family home in Crete to work the land. “We’re not doing it for the money; but at least we know what goes into our stomachs,” he says. “More and more people are coming back to the village to do the same,” Zoumboulakis says. His cousins from Athens recently visited the island to plant some trees. “When they retire in a few years, they plan to move here too,” he says.
On the island of Chios, the collection of mastic from gum trees, an age-old tradition, is experiencing a revival and production last year rose by 20 percent.
Lefteris Karakatsanis, 74, migrated to Germany in 1963 before trying his luck in the United States. In 1994, after he retired, he returned to Chios to live with his wife. In the early years, his pension was enough to afford them a decent life. As the euro rose against the dollar, it became harder for them to get by. “At least I make some mastic and we manage to earn some extra money,” he says.
“Mastic is a very good product,” says Giorgos Avdeliodis, 57, who used to work for the Public Power Corporation (PPC). He cultivates mastic trees, but also breeds animals. “Goats, chicken, pigs — mostly for our own consumption,” he says.
For many people on Chios, mastic collection is for pocket money, says Christos Koukouris, a retired naval officer and member of the island’s mastic production board. “But it’s still a tough job.”

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