Greeks try farming as a backup plan
By Michael Birnbaum, Washington Post, June 27, 2013
ATHENS—More than three years into Greece’s depression-level crisis, the economy is still shrinking, but less quickly. Unemployment is still rising, but not as fast. The country’s leaders have proclaimed light at the end of a very long tunnel. And on a blooming preserve in northern Athens, dozens of unemployed professionals are learning how to farm, a skill they say will serve them well in good times and bad.
After several months in which Greek life appeared to have assumed a painful but predictable trajectory, the political system plunged back into chaos in recent days over an effort to lay off public workers for the first time in the crisis. There were fresh questions about the future of the bailout that is keeping Greece’s finances afloat. But in the fields, olives continued to swell on their gnarled branches.
Many Greeks own farmland that went fallow after their parents and grandparents moved from the countryside to cities during Greece’s post-World War II economic boom. Now, after years of crushing austerity, ever more are turning to their agrarian roots as a backup plan.
"The best thing is that if you’re at the bottom, there’s nothing worse," said Konstantina Kardoulia, 30, a graphic artist who has been unemployed for a year and a half but has a patch of land near Athens. "We have rabbits, chickens, cabbages, carrots. Enough to cover our needs."
For years, planning even a month in advance in Greece has seemed foolhardy, with euro-denominated nest eggs threatening to evaporate if the country were pushed out of the currency zone. Even when the country’s squabbling politicians banded together to legislate the harsh economic measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund and creditor countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, the laws frequently failed to turn into action. And even though Greek leaders now say that the situation is easing, unemployment is at 27 percent and the government barely has the money to keep hospitals, schools and other basic services going.
A year after a fragile coalition government came to power, an unfamiliar stability had settled over Greece until Prime Minister Antonis Samaras this month ordered the closure of ERT, the public broadcaster, in an effort to strike 2,500 jobs from government payrolls. The smallest of three coalition partners pulled out of the government to protest the move, leading to fresh turmoil this week.
The unrest barely touched a pastoral estate in northern Athens that belonged to the first queen of Greece, Amalia of Oldenburg. Students in the agriculture class were calm, saying that they had finally found a path that depended little on their leaders. With olive trees taking a prominent role in Greek myths, the advertising copy for farming here was written thousands of years ago.
Most of the 96 students have professional degrees ranging from dentistry to civil engineering. All are unemployed, and most have given up finding a job in their area of expertise any time soon. So they have turned to farming as a business. Some plan to move out of expensive Athens and into the countryside, reversing the migration their ancestors made decades ago.
"We have all this land that we haven’t exploited correctly," said Charitini Kontopoulou, a doctoral student in agronomy who runs the classes at the Center of the Earth organization. "All my friends come to me and say, ‘Hey, Charitini, I have this land. What should I do with it?’ "
The first session started in March. Three days a week for nine weeks, students study the basics of agronomy and learn everything from viticulture to how to dig a vegetable bed. One recent morning, students were pruning grapevines, taking breaks from the intense sun under the shade of nearby olive trees.
"After such a long period of unemployment, everybody understands that we have to do something," said Dimitrios Botsos, 51, who spent decades working for large companies and a nongovernmental organization before being laid off in 2008. His wife is also jobless.
His grandparents were farmers, he said, but neither he nor his parents knew much about agriculture. Still, he said, farming is the obvious fallback for tough times.
"The land is there," he said. "All you need is your hands."
Many Greeks have simply adapted to getting by with less. An open-air food market in one northern Athens neighborhood was packed near closing time one recent afternoon, with shoppers swarming the stands because they know farmers will be eager to sell their merchandise for a bargain.
"Potatoes, they don’t drop in price," said Katarina Milioni, 45, who was a carpet saleswoman until she was laid off last year. "But fish, they do."
"People buy a lot less," she said. "Things have gotten a lot harder."