The Call, Column 39 – Local Agriculture: Greek Style

8 02 2016

(January 31, 2016)

The Urban Farmer

Local Agriculture: Greek Style

Farmers Market in Pireaus, Greece

Farmers Market in Pireaus, Greece

As I write this, I arrived home not 16 hours ago from my month-long trip to Greece. I spent a lot of great time with my family around the country, and one of my most vivid memories was the context that surrounds you as you explore the cities and landscapes – the Greek agriculture.

I’ve made it pretty obvious in the past, that small-scale, local agriculture forms the basis of Greece’s economy. We’ve discussed this from the perspectives of urban farming, energy efficiency and sustainability, community resiliency, economics, and international politics. Today, let’s talk about the farmers markets and the farmers themselves.

Last week, I visited two huge farmers markets. The first was the Varvakios Agora, Athens’ central market, and it was a pretty incredible experience.

Imagine walking down a long hallway, with standard sized market booths on either side, each of which belongs to a meat farm or farm collective. You can find almost any kind of meat you want – lamb, goat, beef, pork, chicken, duck, and every kind of fish swimming in the Mediterranean Sea. And many of the animals are still whole – entire lambs or chickens, with the heads and (if you’re lucky), organs still attached, hanging on display – having obviously been slaughtered just that morning.

And here’s the fun part: the vendors talk directly to you as you pass by. They are constantly yelling their products and prices – “Fresh lamb, 5 Euros per kilo!” But as you walk by, they address you specifically, explaining how the meat is “just for you, sir”, holding a lamb-chop or whole chicken out in front of you, urging you to examine and smell it for quality.

And that’s not the half of it. Along one adjoining road is the fruit and vegetable market, where in-season produce from around Southern Greece is laid out in farmers-market style. They have a longer growing season and warmer year than us, so in addition to the root vegetables, leafy greens, and brassicas, I found a plethora of fruits and vegetables that I wouldn’t otherwise dream of eating in January. And along the other joining road was the dried goods – nuts and seeds, dried fruits, cured meats, and spices of all kinds.

A few days later, I went to a “small” farmers market (called a Laiki) in Piraeus, the suburb of Greece where my dad’s mom and sisters live. That was an experience in itself.

Four or five city blocks along one road were lined with upwards of 100 vendors from the local foodshed. Like in the Varvakios Agora, Greece’s warm, extended growing season was made obvious by the shear diversity of produce available – fruits and vegetables, eggs, olives and oil, and honey, among others.

And in similar fashion to the agora, the farmers and vendors were shouting their competitive prices, and addressing sales pitches at specific passersby. This market reminded me a lot of the Pawtucket Wintertime Farmers Market going on now in Rhode Island, but was generally louder (and there were lemons).

Despite the positive and inspiring atmosphere in these markets, I couldn’t help but recognize that it wasn’t a good reflection of the situation that the farmers in Greece are facing.

If you thought my description last time of the labor crisis and tax rates was unbelievable, it is even worse for the farmers. When all is said and done, their income is taxed at something like 85%, despite their not being the best-off financially. Their social security is being cut significantly, and their insurance rates are increasing as well. And having to honor the European Union’s regulations and embargos – specifically with Russia, one of the Greek farmers’ biggest customers – is making it even less financially stable to be a farmer in the country.

So it shouldn’t surprise you that there have been massive farmer protests in the recent months, and quite often while I was there. They used their tractors to block the National Highway in Northern Greece earlier this week, and in some cases stage protests where they spill unsold/unsellable produce (milk was what I saw) in the street. I generally don’t condone food waste, but if they are being driven to waste the product of their own hard work, it shows the magnitude of the struggles they are facing.

And while I celebrate the farmers standing up for their interests against the European Union government that obviously doesn’t care, I write it all with a heavy heart – I have a personal attachment to these goings-on, because a good part of my family in Greece is farmers.

On both sides of my family, my great-grandparents’ and grandparents’ generation were mostly full-time farmers, and now, many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins, are at least part-time. I have experienced this fact first-hand, enjoying the fruits – and vegetables, and eggs, and olive oil – of their labor each time I visit Greece. But with this also comes stories: of peaches and kiwis, which are bought for so little money by Northern European packing companies that it’s barely worth growing them; of cherries that had to go to waste, because EU regulations have closed market channels and there isn’t enough demand at local farmers markets; and of produce that was grown and harvested, only to be made unsellable overnight by an unexpected embargo with Russia.

If, through conversations with my family members, friends, and baristas at local coffee shops, I could feel the struggles facing every citizen of Greece, I could feel it tenfold amongst my farmer relatives. Farming was and still is considered a noble job in Greece – whether full- or part-time, it is a common and positive thing for a family to spend their free time collectively managing a few acres of agricultural land.

As I have said a few times, agriculture is the basis of Greece’s economy. And I think the farmers are all fully aware of that, which is why they seem hopeful that they can use it to their advantage in protesting.

But with all of this said, the local agricultural scene in Greece is still vibrant and strong. They aren’t allowing the problems with the European Union and the Greek government to get in the way of their chosen profession, their calling – to raise a good product, and make it available to their fellow Greeks.

They are blessed with good soil, abundant sunlight, lots of pollinators, and a culture of people who know that agriculture is a dignified occupation and who respect, and can empathize with the lives of farmers. They live in a perfect environment for agriculture; and guess what: They sure know how to put on a good farmers market.

My column appears every other Sunday in The Woonsocket Call (also in areas where The Pawtucket Times is available). 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.