Historical explanation of Greek farm sizes

Greek agriculture has traditionally been small scale. There are two factors contributing to this. The first is the landscape itself and the second is the historical division and use of the land. As an old Greek saying goes, when God was making earth he forgot to make Greece and when he realized the oversight he tossed a pile of left over rocks into a corner and called it Greece. That the terrain is rocky and difficult to farm is documented throughout history.

In the ancient times Greece was divided into many city states (Athens, Arcadia, Sparta, Thebes, and other). Each state had its own farms which were apparently mostly small plots 4-5acres in size run by families. They were self sufficient producing only a small surplus for sale.  There were some big farms run by overseers for absent landlords but these were few in number. (historylink101.com). In the medieval era during the nearly 400 years of Ottoman rule all of the Greece was owned by the Ottomans.

“During Ottoman rule the fertile plains were uncultivated, while intensive labor had been put by the Greek (and Turkish) peasantry into making small patches of resistant highland profitable.” (Russell 2014).

Not only were farm sizes small but as the journalist Mihailidis explains social communities which might have offered support remained underdeveloped and the Ottoman cities on the plains were only administrative centers.

After the war of independence in the 1830s the then new Greek government led by Ioannis Kapodistria introduced major land reforms returning the ownership of small plots of land to the Greek citizens, thereby creating a system of independent peasantry. At the same time there was a slow but steady movement of farmers into the low lands which had previously been avoided because of disease from the marshlands and fear of oppression by local archons (landlords).

This system of settlement and ownership of the countryside largely continues to the present day. Not only have the size of farms changed little since the ancient times but so too the methods of production have been slow to change. Up until WWII many say that little had changed in farming methods. A brief quote from the end of the 19Century graphically describes the situation.

“Farm implements are of the very rudest description. Irrigation is in use in some districts, and, as far as I can ascertain, the methods in use can be readily learned by a study of the practices of the ancient Egyptians. Greece has olives and grapes in abundance, and of quality not excelled; but Greek olive oil and Greek wine will not bear transportation.”

(Moffett, 1889 in Wikipedia 2014)

Pre and Post World War II: Farm Equipment

Since the end of WWII, however, Greece’s population steadily shifted from the farm land to the cities, leaving many small farms uncultivated and poorly managed. The comparatively large scale farming that was left was mostly in the lowlands. Greek farmers tried to follow the industrial era’s mass production model of farm mechanization and use of fertilizers. Greece has one of the highest tractor ownerships in Europe a statistic which cannot be understood without understanding this history of Greek land ownership. Every farm is owned by an individual and every farmer has his tractor. There are obvious inefficiencies in this system which make it very difficult for Greece to compete with economies with much larger land holdings.