Sunny Greece spent 11.7 mln euros on fresh tomato imports in 2011
In 2011, Greece paid 11.7 million euros to import 15,550 tons of fresh tomatoes from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries. Greeks did just as everyone in Northern Europe does, which is eat foreign tomatoes. But the difference here is that we have the perfect climate and every opportunity to grow our own tomatoes. And the price of Greek tomatoes is the same as that of imports. So why import? But then again, why not?
The Dutch tomato-grower, for example, has modernized production, limited costs, ensured a standard quality and, most importantly, has a significant volume of production. This allows him to bring down the price he sells at to the same level as the Greek farmer, but of course his profit margin is much greater given his lower production cost.
In Greece, the market is total chaos. In Crete, for example, farmers in cooperatives hand over their tomatoes for auction without receiving a receipt, so they have no idea at what price they will be sold. The cooperative, which sets no floor or ceiling to the price, then sells the tomatoes on at whatever price it deems acceptable to whomever is interested in paying, and the farmer gets a cut.
As far as prices are concerned, according to Aristotelis Panteliadis, CEO of the Metro cash-and-carry chain, imported tomatoes are no cheaper on average than domestic varieties when bought in bulk. But, he explains, the cost for the foreign producer is much lower, giving them a higher profit margin.
According to Constantinos Akoumianakis, an assistant professor at the Agricultural University of Athens, “foreign farmers have huge greenhouses and hydroponic production methods. This is precision farming that covers all the plants’ needs, while at the same time conserving water, nutrients and, of course, money.”
On the other hand, most local farmers use old-fashioned methods and are hesitant to try new varieties for which there is a demand in the market.
The combination of these factors means that in 2011, Greece spent 11.7 million euros on imported tomatoes. It was, however, the first year in many that the country also succeeded in making some exports: 14,470 tons worth just 6.2 million euros -- a low price. In 2010, Greece imported 17,088 tons of fresh tomatoes, paying 16.5 million euros, and exported just 7,373 tons, making 3.9 million euros. In 2009, Greece exported just 2,708 tons of tomatoes (1.3 million euros’ worth), a year when the Netherlands came second in the global export rankings for tomatoes and reaped 1.1 billion euros from the sale of 965,000 tons.
Efforts for change
Awareness of the factors contributing to low output and sales has led a handful of Greek farmers to change the way they think about what they do and, by extension, to change the way they do it.
On the island of Paros, Christos Lazanakis started a hydroponic greenhouse in 2008 where plants do not grow in the earth but in a layer of pumice stone, hoping to boost production while lowering his operational costs.
“You need to follow a very specific fertilization and watering regime for each crop,” explained the greenhouse owner.
Wonderplant is also moving along high-technology lines, with a hydroponic unit of 120,00 square meters in Drama, northern Greece, which is expected to produce 7,000 tons of tomatoes throughout the year.
The managing director of Wonderplant, Themis Makris, told Kathimerini that the technology being used may be Dutch, but the environment in which the company is trying to do business remains very much Greek.
“We use natural gas and pay 60 euros a megawatt -- as much as household consumers do -- while Dutch farmers pay exactly half that,” he said, citing one example of the obstacles the company faces.
Read also: Why does Greece import so much food?