Niche Farming in Greece

Producing the essentials of the Mediterranean diet: Small size, high quality and networked farms.

It is ironic that while the 20th century mass production farming in Greece is struggling, the traditional small sized farms are leading in innovation. 

The village produce and wild foods which Greeks have always highly prized in their own diets are now in demand around the world. In an age of globalization, networked communication and fast transport, it has become possible to operate niche buisenesses successfully. Health promoting foods such as olives, figs, grapes, honey, saffron, snails, pomegranates, wild greens, lentils, and nuts – all characteristic foods of Greece since antiquity are the crops which form the basis of the famed Mediterranean diet. This diet is endorsed by doctors and dietitians everywhere and it is these crops which are now in  demand and which are offering Greek farming some future hope.

Wild Edibles: Chamomile, Dandelion, Wild Greens, Poppies, Thyme

Many of the factors which made it difficult for Greece to compete in 20 Century mass production markets, such as small farm land size,  become possible advantages in the 21st century. The new possibilities arise from strong global trends toward mass customization and specialization. The European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) forward to 2020, also supports environmentally sensitive, sustainable, high quality and innovative farming.

2011: A new CAP reform seeks to strengthen the economic and ecological competitiveness of the agricultural sector, to promote innovation, to combat climate change and to support employment and growth in rural areas.                                (European Commission. 2012)

In order to understand the logic of the solution to the ailing farm sector, it is necessary to understand something of Greece’s agricultural history. Understanding the history which has led to the current farm crisis, reveals where there is space for innovation and development that is matched to both the terrain and the culture. 

The heart of this change is finding a way to leverage  small farm size by networking specialized small holdings and using the networks to provide information, education and to build supporting social communities.  This works with the deep rooted Greek individualism while providing collaborative support.

Effect of European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)
An explanation of the changed economic prospects of established Greek commercial farming and the drivers for change have also to take into account the effect on production of the CAP policy from the time of Greece’s entry into the common market in 1981.

From 1981-1992 which was a transitional period, Greece’s farm incomes rose significantly due to CAP subsidies, as did the ownership of tractors per farm.  

 

Farm incomes however declined after 1990 when the EU expanded and compliance with EU requirement to change what was being produced became increasingly difficult to implement. 

Greece-Agriculture: Value added (% of GDP)
Diagram courtesy of Stevia Hellas
Greece-Agricultural Machinery: Tractors
Diagram courtesy of Stevia Hellas

At this time there was also a radical change in CAP policy which had as its aims

“to break the link between subsidies and production, to diversify the rural economy and to respond to consumer demands for safe food, and high standards of animal welfare and environmental protection”. (BBC News Europe 2013)

In 2013 both CAP policy makers and its critics are aware that with the financial crises as well as strong competition from counties such as China and India there needs to be less money spent on subsidies and more on agricultural research to improve the quality of crop varieties. With Europe’s farmer population now noticeably aging, there is general awareness of the need to provide financial incentives to attract younger educated people into farming, to improve crop quality, as well as diversity. At the same time CAP recognizes the need to change the ratio of support between big and small farms. (BBC News Europe 2013)

The main commercial crops currently grown in Greece are wheat, corn, barley, sugar beets, olives, tomatoes, wine, tobacco, potatoes; dairy products (CIA Factbook. Accessed 2014). None of them are doing well. One exception is the successful replacement of the tobacco with stevia- a sweet leaf which replaces sugar but has no calories.

CAP aims through to 2020 are likely to support a good future for small size, high quality and networked farms in Greece. These changes should help those producing the essentials of the Mediterranean diet.

Cultural factors

Cultural factors are also likely to support the change to new innovative  niche farming. Older Greek farmers are known to be autocratic, fiercely individual and proud of their independence. They don’t easily cooperate with each other.

In contrast to the older farmers, the young generation are more likely to be well educated, comfortable with technology and networked both within Greece and abroad with global markets, so they have both the needed skills and support networks.

In June 2011, 4,921 people — many of them young and recently unemployed — began their own start-ups, outpacing the number of companies that closed by 1,633. New projects, particularly those in the remote agrarian areas of Greece, range from quaint bed-and-breakfasts to snail breeding. Such willingness to take risks in new and independent ventures exemplifies the mindset of many young Greeks. (Vanikiotis 2011)

Cultural factors, including education, research and local support communities will have to continue to change in order for the new farming innovations to be achieved.

New Business Models

Established Greek farmers express doubts about farming as a viable business, a fact evidenced by the very frequent mass tractor protests which have been widely reported in the global media over the past decades (Louloudis, Maraveyas 1997). They also referring to its difficulties which are the hard labor, long difficult hours and loneliness.  On the other hand the new niche farmers agree about the difficulties but use new technologies to network and cooperate with one an other, to share knowledge, experience and resources.  
There are thee different types of business models for entrepreneurial farming beginning to appear. 

  1. Cooperatives:  Where a group of individual farmers specializing in the same crop, create a company to grow crops in a specific way and share production and marketing resources.  Example Stevia Hellas.
  2. Networked:  Where an informal group of individual specialized farmers share their knowledge although they harvest them, process them and distribute them individually.  Example Ippofaes PLUS.
  3. Franchise farming:  Where people buy the know how and equipment from a franchising company which constructs the farm for the franchisee.  The franchisee grows the crop and then sell it back to the franchiser for distribution.  Example MPIMPAS GROUP.

The innovation is not only in the type of business model but also in the type of crops that are being grown commercially and the range of ways in which traditional crops are being used.  An example might be the demand for olive leaf extract (Lee-Huang et al 2003).  Niche crops being particularly suitable to small scale diversity.  The interesting thing is that these crops themselves are not new to the country they are only new to commercial cultivation.

21st Century Innovative crops

Greece has an outstanding climate for horticulture many edible weeds and plants grow wild across the entire Greek landscape.

Today it is small sized farms producing high quality, high nutritional products such as, saffron, snails, mushrooms, pomegranates, and a new crop – ippofaes which are emerging as a possible major trends towards reconstructing Greek farm industries.

For further information on the currently developing new cultivations, click on any of the following profiles.

Ippofaes / Hippophae (also known as Sea Buckthorn)
 There are 7 species of Ippofaes which grow in many climates and conditions. It is a tall thorny bush with bright orange berries. Russia has produced a thornless variety which makes harvesting easier.

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Mushrooms
Mushrooms provide attributes similar to those found in meat, beans and grains. Mushrooms are low in calories, and sodium and they are fat and gluten free. They are high in fiber and protein and are a good source of antioxidants. Mushrooms are also rich in vitamin D and B. They produce vitamin D when exposed to sun light in the same way that human skin does.

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Snails
There are two main methods of snail farming. One is by using specially constructed containers that are often temperature controlled and where the snails have to be fed . This is the French system. The other method allows the snails to free range in an open enclosure. This is the Italian method.

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Stevia
The sweet compounds within the stevia plant have a potency which varies between 50 to 450 times that of ordinary white sugar (sucrose). Stevioside, the most commonly-used extractive of stevia, is generally agreed to be about 300 times sweeter than sugar. One teaspoon of Stevia is equivalent to one cup of sugar.

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Further Reading