The Call and Times, Column 9 – My Big, Fat, Greek Experience

19 06 2014

(June 6, 2014)

The Urban  Farmer

My Big, Fat, Greek Experience

Since last fall, we’ve discussed a nice array of topics – from solar power to vegetable gardens, and GMO seed to climate change, I’ve tried to start conversations about subjects that are not only practically important to the modern urban farmer, but also significant on a societal level. But the questions that besiege my mind and, I expect, those of a great many of my readers, are of a more far-reaching, systemic nature: What are the faults of our modern food system? How can we inspire people to grow their own food, conserve resources, and build communities? Can urban agriculture really make a dent in the food supply? These are important questions, alas essentially impossible to cover at length in this column. But I think we may be able to tackle one of the most basic, but fundamental questions of urban agriculture: What does a complete, functional urban agricultural system look like?

As most of you don’t know, I’ve spent the past two weeks in Greece. Since arriving here, I’ve been immersed in a culture that values agriculture and conservation, and where a large number of people raise their own food. There are four places from which I have gathered inspiration, all in the northern Macedonia area of the country. Sevasti is a small village, surrounded by farmland, which is the home of a large number of Pontian Greek Protestants (my great grandparents included) who settled here after being supplanted during the recession of the Ottoman Empire. Kolindros is a small town, also surrounded by farms, which was one of the few areas that stood though the 400 year Ottoman occupation of Greece. Katerini is a mid-sized city, with a population slightly higher than that of Woonsocket, and with an incredible urban agriculture sector. Thessaloniki is a large city, east of Katerini, with a size and population density comparable to that of Boston. I have family in all of these places, and have experienced firsthand the system of urban agriculture that exists within and between them.

So what exactly do I mean by a “complete, functional urban agriculture system”? Urban agriculture is when many individual elements, like chickens, vegetable gardens, and solar panels, are put together in order to reach a more complex goal, often having to do with some measure of self-sufficiency, increased food security, and a smaller environmental footprint. For this to be complete and functional, by no means does it have to supply organic food and clean energy for all of a household’s needs – that’s very difficult, especially given the limited space in an urban setting. Rather, a complete and functional urban agriculture serves as a buffer to food price-spikes and shortages, making a household capable of supplying all of its needs for a short time, and otherwise making a measurable dent in its needs long-term. Finally, there are two levels in which this can be considered a system. On the level of individual household, all of the elements should function in harmony. But on a higher level, when many households in a community participate in urban agriculture, it creates opportunities for the sharing and trade of products, skills, and ideas. This is a complete, functional urban agriculture system, and is basically what is already being done in Greece. In order to visualize and understand Greece’s system, it makes sense to divide it into three overarching motivations – conservation, production, and community – and look at examples that I’ve seen in my travels.

The first thing that struck me when I arrived here was how actively the population conserves their resources, namely water and electricity. Nearly every house – from the country homes of Sevasti to the apartment complexes of Thessaloniki – has a clothesline of some sort, and very few have electric clothes dryers. Many of the houses also have big (insulating) windows, allowing natural light to be used in lieu of electric lighting, and most appliances are designed to use as little energy and water as possible. Furthermore, most homes in highly populated areas, and nearly all in less populated ones, have solar hot water heaters on their roofs. Showering and other tasks that require hot water are planned according to when it is available during the day (from after sunrise to before sunset), and everyone is very conscious of their use of hot water and other resources, because they recognize them as limited and valuable.

The second, far more significant element of the Greek urban agricultural lifestyle is widespread, distributed production of food and energy. Nearly every available space (I am not exaggerating) is put up to vegetable gardens and fruit or nut trees. It is normal to grow at least a few tomato, eggplant, and pepper plants, and large, grassy areas are considered by most to be an irresponsible use of water (unless, of course, they have goats or cows to graze them). For any tree in a residential area, there is probably a 50% likelihood that it is a fruit or nut tree – olives are the most common, but are closely followed by grape vines, figs, cherries, walnuts, and kiwis. In Katerini (a larger city than Woonsocket), at least two households per block has happy, healthy chickens in their backyards. And with all of their agriculture, Greeks make a pretty good approximation of organic, or “biological” as it’s called here – in vegetable gardens and commercial farms alike, GMOs are basically forbidden, Integrated Pest Management programs are often used in lieu of significant pesticide application, and ruminant animals (cows, goats, sheep) are most often fed grass. What’s more, you can’t drive for more than five minutes without seeing a large solar photovoltaic array on the roof of a home or business, even despite a pretty significant tax on the systems.

Finally, community and coproduction are concepts that still play a significant role in the Greek life. People walking on the street greet each other because they know each other, or want to. Homegrown fruits, vegetables, eggs, and honey are shared between family, friends, and neighbors, and there is a definite, almost tangible sense of a social safety net that comes from a strong community. Many population centers are surrounded by farms, and the people have a clear understanding of 1) how their continued existence is dependent on this agriculture, and 2) how to eat seasonally and locally, such that a good part of their needs can be supplied by their locale.

In a more esoteric sense, life here is generally slower, and more meaningful. The people work hard, and for much more than 40 hours per week, but busy-ness in one’s personal, social, and familial life is not glorified as it is in other parts of the Western world. Few households have more than two cars, because gas is twice as expensive as in the United States, cities and towns are designed for walking, and people are not in a rush to leave where they are. The idea of a home economy is not dead here – it is not uncommon for the ebbs and flows of a household’s functioning to include olive-oil-pressing, winemaking, and all sorts of food preservation.

Since 2009, Greece has suffered financial recession unmatched by most other countries in Europe. Many point their fingers at the country, blaming the people’s lifestyle for their economic woes, but the truth is so far from that. Greek industry is still relatively young, not having had much time to grow after being freed from Ottoman occupation not 100 years ago, and being in the middle of two world wars, and the receiving end of a military dictatorship since. This, coupled with a new currency (the Euro) that came at a horrible time, and financial austerity measures levied by a disconnected and uninformed European Union, have resulted in a country with a 50% youth unemployment rate and a necessarily bare-bones standard of living.

I came to this country, and into the writing of this column, with the intent of finding an innovative, novel Greek model upon which we could construct our own in the United States. I’ve found that system – definitely innovative, but far from novel. This system has helped the people here to get through 5000 years of the woes that come with human civilization. And that system persists today, the remnant of the historical homesteads, which are an integral part of the Greek culture. Whether as a way to save money, to provide for a little food security, or to lower their environment footprint, people in Greece widely practice urban agriculture because they see it as a necessary, important, valuable part of the human experience.

And that it is. I’m writing this article from the front porch of my grandmother and aunts’ home in Katerini, watching their neighbors working in their garden, which takes up their entire 1/8 acre backyard, and tending their many chickens. The garden, the fruit trees, the chickens, the solar panels – this production, and the conservation and community that come along with it, are some of the most basic components of human life, unquestioned for millennia because they are necessary for our survival. And despite the loss of this systematic pursuit in the normal American life, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t, or that it won’t again, be the norm. We, as humans, as global and local citizens, as living beings who require food, water, shelter, and energy, should learn to be more like the Greeks – or the French, the Japanese, the Australians, the Ethiopians, or the Chileans. We must be co-producers in our agricultural system, and we must be producers in our own right.

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.