City folks catching on to the allure of the countryside

Former adman K.T. used to believe that living in the countryside would be a complete nightmare. Born in Athens and with a bent for the arts, he never pictured himself sitting at the village taverna working out the price of fertilizer. Yet, two years ago, at the age of 45, he decided to turn his life around.

?The finances in my sector were really beginning to dry up,? he told Kathimerini. ?It?s not as if I have a lot of work now, but at least I can see things happening on the horizon. The financial crisis squashed the only motive to continue living in the city — the hope that things will get better.? So, K.T. decided to start a small herb farm in Fthiotida. He attended seminars, learned to dig and began watching the agricultural weather report on television.

K.T. is by no means alone, according to a study published by the Panhellenic association of agricultural collectives (PASEGES), which saw a 7 percent rise in the number of people entering agriculture in 2008 and 2009. This means that in the two-year period, according to Greek and European data, 38,000 people decided for one reason or another to try their hand at farming and to change their way of life. PASEGES, meanwhile, receives tens of e-mails every day from new farmers asking for advice. This is a sharp reversal of the trend just a few years ago, when record numbers were leaving the sector.

Turning to farming, the data show, is a mature decision, taken mainly by people aged 45 to 64, and mostly in Western Macedonia, Western Greece and Thessaly. Mature farmers, studies reveal, see little future in the business in which they were previously involved or are seeking a way to supplement their pensions.

M.F., who lives near Sparta, took an early retirement package in 2009 from the civil service but his pension was reduced and, at the age of 54, he wasn?t ready to resign himself to a life of sitting around at home watching television. He turned his attention instead to developing orange orchards and olive groves. ?We needed a supplementary income. Not that oranges and olives bring in as much as they used to — prices have dropped considerably — but it does help us pay for our youngest daughter?s tuition fees,? he told Kathimerini.

Agricultural production has traditionally been considered a risky occupation in Greece, but, in times of economic crisis, things change. Xenofontas Ktenas, for example, used to work in the retail sector and farming began to look like an attractive alternative as the crisis began taking its toll on consumer spending. ?I rented a hectare of land on which I grow laurel trees, whose bay leaves I sell to a packaging company here in Agrinio.? Herbs, he said, are a growing Greek industry with rising export potential.

The data, however, also show that younger people are becoming interested in the rural life, with a rise in the involvement of people aged 15 to 44 of 55.1 percent in the southern Aegean, 31 percent on Crete and 20 percent on the Ionian Islands, suggesting a turn away from work related to tourism and construction, the driving forces of the regions? economies, which have also been hit hard in recent months.

The economic crisis seems to be at the root of the issue, yet another factor emerges from the study as well, as people are beginning to perceive farmers differently and to appreciate life in the countryside in a different way. Old prejudices of farmers being uneducated and coarse are beginning to disappear and a life outside the city is starting to look alluring for more and more people. ?Through this work I have met a lot of well-educated farmers, people who speak foreign languages and who travel abroad to seminars and conferences,? said K.T. ?I realized that the people at the village square have the same information, if not more, than those in Athens.?

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