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Independent.ie

Sunday 4 December 2016

Greeks go back to the land

In the wake of the crash, the Greeks, like the Irish, are pinning their hopes on farming and tourism

Jim O'Brien

Published 27/05/2015 | 02:30

A typical Greek farming landscape featuring a potato garden with an olive grove in the background
A typical Greek farming landscape featuring a potato garden with an olive grove in the background

Modern Thessaloniki is Greece's second city set in the north of the country on a gulf that bears its name. The place is a treasure trove of monuments and reminders of a rich past; a city that is decidedly Greek, but one strongly influenced by its Roman and Ottoman past, and which retains a strong Balkan flavour.

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Along with reminders of the distant past the city has more than its share of monuments to the modern economics of boom and bust. The road from the airport is lined with empty car showrooms, idle service stations, half finished apartment buildings and abandoned industrial units. Yet, there is plenty of traffic, lots of people in a hurry and life goes on.

Everyone talks about 'the crisis', it peppers every conversation. Two other issues join it in a trio of recurring themes; the embargo on exports to Russia and the flood of refugees and immigrants. On all three counts Greeks feel at best abandoned by Europe and at worst victimised.

The Greek crisis bears some comparison with the Irish experience. Just as in Ireland, agriculture is becoming something of a beacon in the darkness of economic despair. The Greeks are also looking to tourism as the other key indigenous industry with the capacity to lift them from the abyss. The similarities end there in so far as the Greeks are working from quite a higher base with tourism at 18pc of the economy while farming and food make up just over 4pc.

Tassos Haniotis is director of Economic Analysis, Perspectives and Evaluations at DG Agri in Brussels. As a Greek native and an agricultural expert he believes farming will play a significant role in a Greek recovery.

"Agriculture is not a huge part of the Greek economy, just about 4pc but it has an increasingly important role at a number of levels; in terms the social sustainability of rural life, environmental sustainability, as a source of growth and a source of expertise and innovation."

Mr Haniotis believes the current CAP should deliver strongly for Greece. Worth €19bn for the current programming period, it exceeds all other EU funding to Greece for the same period. He says the shift of the CAP from historical production to land use favours the Greek shift to more environmentally friendly production and production based on high value, quality products.

He believes that exports, expertise and high quality are the keys to success for Greek farming. He makes a comparison between Spanish and Greek agriculture to illustrate the challenge and opportunities for the agri export sector.

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"The relative size of the two (Greek and Spanish agriculture) is comparable as a percentage of GDP. Yet the big difference is that while in Greece the value of exports approaches 50pc of the value of production, in Spain it surpasses 80pc."

The importance of Greek agricultural exports has been highlighted by the impact of the embargo on exports to Russia. In spite of this Thassos points out that EU agricultural exports have increased overall. He is anxious that Greece be part of this story.

Haniokis is hopeful that an evident return to the land by young Greeks offers great possibilities, especially in light of the new CAP reforms.

"Young educated farmers will bring different things with them that could give added value to farming."

Innovation

He believes this return to the land is happening at a good time given the supports for young farmers provided in the new C AP and the link between research, innovation and advisory systems.

In this regard he points out that Greek universities have been among the most successful in attracting EU research funding. He is hopeful that this will pay dividends in terms of innovation and increased expertise in Greek farming.

Vasso Polychronopoulou is a lively freelance journalist from Athens. She has survived the recession through a combination of tenacity and good humour.

As we drive north-west from Thessaloniki going deeper into the Macedonian mountain territory she is a constant source of information and insight on politics, history and life in modern Greece.

"This road follows the same path as the road from Roman times that led from Rome to Constantinople."

She explains that the north west of Greece has forever been the scene of much trouble and strife.

"It suffered a lot during the Civil War (between communists and Greek government army from 1946-49). Many of the villages controlled by the communists were attacked with napalm and abandoned," she points out.

Her mobile phone bleeps with a message sent by a fellow journalist documenting the immigrant crisis, it shows Albanians crossing the border during the night and is entitled, 'New arrivals'.

"The immigrant crisis can be solved," she says, "In the 1920s, after the Treaty of Lausanne we absorbed two million Greeks from Asia Minor in a population swap with Turkey. Surely all of Europe can absorb in an organised way many of those coming across the Mediterranean or across the land. Why leave it to Greece and Italy?"

As we drive through one of the larger towns, the coffee shops are full to overflowing with young people.

"They have no jobs," she explains, "so they go to the coffee shops. But some of them are returning to the land. Many families in the cities have small farms in their villages of origin and young people are going back to farm them so that they will have something to do and can produce food.

"They are going for economic reasons and for a better quality of life," she continues. "A friend of mine, a cameraman, bought some land in the north and is now growing lavender. These young people are bringing a high level of education and expertise with them."

However, some of our Greek fellow travellers admit to a crisis of knowledge and experience.

One remarks that in the good times people paid Albanians to look after their farms and now have no expertise themselves.

Tassos Haniokis reflects ruefully on the change in the agricultural advice service.

"After the civil war we had the best farm advisory service in the world but over the years the service has switched to bureaucratic advice."

However, Vasso Polychronopoulou is more optimistic. "Many of these young people going back to the villages have done their research and are ready to put this into practice. For example, some of them have established a seed-saver project to gather and protect native Greek seeds for use in organic production."

Jim O'Brien travelled to Greece with the European Commission

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