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  Nr. 146 - Summer (July/August/September) 2011
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Agriculture at a Crossroads

by Massaliotis
Historian Fernard Braudel tells us that life in the Mediterranean has revolved around the cultivation of the ‘holy trinity’ of agricultural produce: olives, wheat and grapes. In ancient times the worship of Demeter, goddess of vegetation and harvest, played an important part in the daily lives of the people who inhabited the islands of the Aegean. Although the temple of Demeter that Herodotus tells us was constructed on Paros in antiquity remains to be discovered, we know that one of the many names given to Paros in ancient times was ‘Dimitrias’.

It is the agricultural heritage and the unspoiled landscapes of the Cycladic islands that helped draw the attention of the early visitors who arrived in the area in the sixties. The vineyards dotting the island hillsides, the threshing floors used by farmers to separate the wheat from the chaff and the presses where olives were crushed as they were turned into oil, were all factors contributing to the appeal of the Aegean islands. Nevertheless, as the trickle of tourists who arrived in the sixties turned into a flood towards the close of the last century, the islands’ natural resources, as well as their traditional way of life, were put under increasing pressure.

Fishing and agriculture, the islands’ mainstays for the greater part of history, began to give way to a booming tourism industry. The statistics for the growth of tourism in the Aegean during the second half of the twentieth century are truly astounding. The number of visitors arriving on Paros in 1961 was 19,741; in 2000 the number was 625,353. Between 1981 and 2000 the number of beds on offer in hotels and rooms to rent in the Aegean islands tripled from 109,000 to 353,000. The number of beds in Crete and the islands of the South Aegean as a percentage of the country’s total rose from 38% in 1981 to 58% in 2001. At the same time the number of people engaged in fishing and farming activities began to plunge.

Looking at the data that traces the development of the primary and tertiary sectors in the South Aegean it becomes clear that as the fortunes of the tourism industry waxed, those of the primary sector waned. What’s more, as was noted in a 1988 conference held in Lefkes focusing on the challenges faced by the mountainous villages of Paros, as tourism gained the upper hand, traditional occupations such as farming and fishing started losing their social status. Residents of inland villages ceased to operate their farms and many of them sold their land and moved to what are today the island’s main population centres – Paroikia and Naoussa. The inland village of Lefkes, perched on the slopes of Mount Stroumboulas, which up until 1940 constituted the island’s second largest village, experienced a sudden drop in its population during the fifties and sixties as its residents searched for work primarily in Athens and Paroikia. In some cases entire inland villages were abandoned as the island’s mode of production shifted on its axis and the residents of these villages decided to move to coastal areas. The building that used to house the primary school of Aneratzia, nowadays lying empty and in a derelict state, is one of the few reminders that this inland village, 5km up a bumpy road which comes to an abrupt end, used to be a thriving agricultural community before its residents left for the coastal towns in 1969.

The latest figures coming from the regional authority of the South Aegean show that the primary sector’s contribution to the region’s GDP has dropped to 8%, while the region’s tertiary sector (mainly tourism) nowadays accounts for a whopping 82% of the region’s revenue. And whereas in 1981 a total of 12,000 stremmata of Parian land was set aside for cultivating grapes, in 2008 this figure had dropped to just half that amount.

It might come as a surprise to learn that in the early days of tourism in the region, both tourism and the island’s agricultural sector were interwoven in a mutually beneficial relationship. As Philippos John Loukissas, then a student of Cornell University, noted when he visited Paros in 1975 during a field trip: “The local wine production is a prospering industry, which also serves as a tourist attraction. Many visitors watch for hours outside of the local winery in the harbour area as animals carry grapes from the vineyards to the winery and enjoy observing the process by which grapes are turned into wine. Many tourists participated in the trampling of the grapes. Only a diversified economy of the magnitude of Paros can offer such an interesting attraction for the islands.” His PhD thesis goes on to present us with figures illustrating how increased demand for agricultural products led to a rise in locally produced foodstuffs and a better living standard for the island’s farmers: “During the last years agricultural and livestock production have increased substantially. Irrigated land more than doubled from 2,963 stremmata in 1961 to 6,355 stremmata in 1973. Agricultural income per farmer has tripled between 1968 and 1973.” The then president of the agricultural cooperative went on record stating that he felt that tourism provided a boost to agricultural production. “Farmers sell their produce at high prices directly to consumers without the intervention of the middle man,” he said. The picture emerging from this early stage of development of tourism on Paros is therefore one where tourism helped feed the growth of agriculture. As the number of visitors rose, the increase of tourist demand stimulated farmers to produce more and sell their products directly to consumers for higher prices.

It is these kinds of synergies between the two sectors that need to be re-established today if Paros wants to put an end to the decline of its agricultural production and reverse the job losses that have been occurring in this sector (see diagram 2 for the decrease in the number of farmers in the whole of Greece in the last decade). In fact, as the exponential rise in the number of visitors that have been coming to Paros appears to have come to an end (see diagram 1 for visitors over the last decade) the need for diversifying the island’s economy becomes strikingly clear.

Agro-tourism, the opportunity for tourists to visit local farms and participate in traditional farming practices, such as baking bread in wooden ovens or distilling souma is one way to combine tourism with agriculture. The holding of gastronomy festivals, such as the one that is scheduled to be held on Paros later this year, is another way of linking the two sectors.

Another challenge facing local farmers is the influx of cheap products coming from abroad. As Paros has become ever more interconnected to a global market for agricultural products, imports of foreign foodstuffs have rocketed. This has led to a squeezing of local producers’ profits, making it harder for them to sell their produce in their home market. A common complaint expressed by local producers today is that there are no markets left to sell their products. Vassilis Trivizas, a farmer interviewed by the students of the School of Informatics of Indiana University last year, said: “In the past boats used to come from Kalymnos to get lambs from Paros. As a result there was demand, that brought profit, while now there is no demand. We give our lambs to whomever at whatever price we can. That’s the difference from the past.”

We spoke to Thodoris Oikonomou, another farmer who has been working on the island for the last 13 years, who told us: “Promoting our goods is our weak point. This is compounded by the fact that multinational supermarkets on the island don’t bother selling our products.”

This is the reason why the local committee of the Hellenic Society for the Protection of the Environment and the Cultural Heritage (Elliniki Etairia) has started compiling a list of local producers, aiming to raise awareness among locals and visitors. As is explained in one of the committee’s documents: “The attempt to protect our island’s primary sector requires us to recruit a number of allies. We need to compile a list of local producers to promote their products… if local consumers add these producers to their list of preferred producers they will start to obtain an ‘environmentally-friendly’ mentality that will enable us to recruit more allies in our fight to protect the environment.” A first draft of this list appeared in ‘Paros Ideal Home 2011’ (pp.210-212). The intention is to add more names to this list over time. Moreover, the local committee of the Elliniki Etairia has plans to produce videos giving tips on ways to prepare traditional dishes that make use of local ingredients. It also plans to produce short videos documenting subjects such as coastal fishermen at work, the trampling of grapes and the distilling of souma.

Apart from its economic importance, a healthy agricultural sector provides a number of public goods that do not usually appear in a cost-benefit analysis. For example the terraces (xerolithies) lining the hillsides of the Cycladic islands help retain the soil, protect the land from erosion, support vegetation and enrich the islands’ aquifers. Sustainable farming also protects islands’ biodiversity and provides their residents with high quality products. A healthy primary sector contributes to the preservation of a number of traditions and customs that have been passed down from generation to generation.

It is interesting to see that as the recent crisis that has engulfed the country has intensified, a growing number of people have started to return to the land to make a living. According to data published by PASEGES (Panhellenic Confederation of Agricultural Cooperatives) the number of people employed in the agricultural sector for the whole of the country has risen by 36,100 in the last three years (see slight upward trend after 2007 in diagram 2). What’s more, the biggest increase in the number of farmers has been in Crete (an increase of 24.1% compared to 2007) and the South Aegean (where numbers rose by 21.8% since 2007). In the case of the South Aegean this increase has been spearheaded by young farmers (aged between 15-44), whose numbers have gone up by 55% over the last three years, the biggest percentage increase for this age group in the whole of Greece.

Thodoris Oikonomou, a young farmer awarded a prize by the Friends of Paros association last year for his efforts to preserve the agricultural landscape of Paros and contribute to a balanced development of the island, told us about his work. He says that he tries to use organic farming methods wherever possible and is currently experimenting with different types of tomatoes to see which is best suited to Parian soil. “I want to avoid growing plants that have been sprayed with who knows what, as you don’t know what will happen later on during their development,” he said. “Last year, for example, it turned out that all the tomatoes had been infected by a maggot that caused them to wither and die within three days, so it’s best to use your own seeds and discover for yourself which is the best seed to sow. I’m still experimenting with different types of tomato seeds on my land, that’s why you see so many varieties of tomatoes growing here,” he added. This echoes what Kostas Dionis, a beekeeper with many years of experience told me when I visited his farm in Thapsana. Dionis explained that the local population of honeybees has suffered severe losses in the last couple of decades due to the spread of diseases on the island: “We should be careful what we feed the bees; nowadays people feed them huge amounts of sugar that diminish their resistance to disease. Better to grow nectar-rich plants around the island than to rely on fraudulent practices,” he argued.

As Oikonomou showed me around his farm, I noticed a number of plants sprouting up between his neatly arranged rows of tomatoes. I asked him what they were doing there. “Each of these plants plays a special role,” he responds. “Basil, for example, gives flavour to tomatoes, chives (skinopraso) mint and marigolds keep insects away, lemon balm (mellisoxorto) attracts bees that pollinate the vegetables, and all of these do away with the need to use pesticides and other chemicals.”

I ask him what can be done to revive the fortunes of the agricultural sector on the island. To begin with, he says, the state should take measures to set up schools for those engaged in farming and animal husbandry activities as many of the older farmers have acquired habits not necessarily conducive to the long-term interests of their profession. Also, the island’s agricultural cooperative (EAS) could be better organised. A greater number of agriculturists and veterinarians are needed. “We used to have two vets on the island, but after one retired, there is just Nikos (Tsigonias) now who runs around all day long but is still not able to cover all our needs.” So what does he think the future holds in store for the agricultural sector? “Maybe the crisis will help us think things over and bring about a real change,” he replies. He gives it some more thought and then he adds: “Let’s begin by growing garlic again, rather than importing it from China, and then we can start thinking about growing organic bananas.”


* Whether you are a resident or visitor to the islands and would like to know how you can help, a good place to start is by watching the short video documentary (in Greek with English subtitles) “Food of the Past: Nourishment for the Future” produced by the School of Informatics of Indiana University on Paros in 2010. The film looks at the traditional agricultural practices of the island and shows how technology and tourism are changing the island farmers’ approach. It features several small-scale local farmers who struggle against the influx of foreign produce and meat, higher food production costs and lower overall demand, as well as how several local NGOs and the municipality of Paros are working together to save this important aspect of the island’s heritage. See: http://vimeo.com/13602964

* Seek out, buy and raise awareness about local Greek products. Ask in restaurants and at your hotel where local produce can be found. Visit the Agricultural Union's shops ‘Pariana Proionta’ (Parian Products) under the police station in the main square of Paroikia (tel: 22840-22181) and next to the football ground in Marpissa.

* Visit the farmers' open air markets at Aghios Nikolaos (near the port of Paroikia) and the riverbed of Naoussa where you can find fresh agricultural produce. Build a rapport with local producers and ask them any questions you might have on the products you consume.

* Support the Paros Gastronomy Festival taking place on the island from 16-18 September 2011. Apply by 2pm on 15 July if you are a producer or creator of local products and wish to participate in the festival. Join the Paros Gastronomy (Pariani Oinogastronomia) group on Facebook, attend the festival and volunteer to help organise events, staff information desks and help with children’s activities and cooking lessons: call Stella Fyrogeni on 22840-52362, 22843-60170, email: antipari@hol.gr and touristoffice@paros.gr

* Find out more about the efforts of the local committee of the Elliniki Etairia to promote local products by contacting one of the committee members at http://ellet.gr (choose Oi Topikes epitropes mas/Topiki Epitropi Parou) and see the ‘Sustainable Aegean’ programme at www.egaio.gr

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