CULTURE

Humble weed growing into major energy crop

The humble artichoke thistle, or wild artichoke, may be a gold mine for many Greek farmers as demand for the weed looks like it may shoot up. The mass cultivation of this excellent source of energy began in earnest three years ago in the northern Greek agricultural region of Kozani, near a lignite station operated by Public Power Corporation, the crop?s main buyer. The aim of the endeavor was to produce a rich biomass that could be mixed with lignite and burned, reducing environmental pollution and providing a boost to local agriculture.

?Cultivation for the production of biomass and using it to mix in with lignite began in order to contribute to the green economy and the sustainable operation of the region?s electricity production,? Western Macedonia Governor Giorgos Dakis told Kathimerini. Cultivation was subsidized for two years at 200 euros per 0.1 hectares, according to Dakis, who added that dozens of farmers became interested in the scheme and started cultivating over 400 hectares of artichoke thistles in the region.

From the first crop, 5 tons were sent for testing in Germany, while the first pilot run of burning 50 tons of dry biomass at the PPC plant in Kardia, Kozani, took place successfully in October 2009.

PPC rejoiced at the success of the scheme because it could finally say it was making good on its European commitments for greener practices, while farmers also hailed the development because it provided a new avenue of exploration and growth, as well as a steady income.

The following September, the PPC plant in Kardia received 1,800 tons of wild artichoke, which it burned in an 8-10 percent mixture with lignite, under the supervision of experts from abroad. The market price for dried artichoke thistle set by PPC was 51 euros per ton at the time.

With the scientists? reports completed and the first complete run a success, on October 15, 2010, PPC signed a contract binding it to continue the practice of mixing artichoke thistle with lignite, compelling more farmers in the region to begin growing the promising crop.

This year, however, PPC has delayed setting a market price for wild artichoke despite pressure applied by the regional authority and other interested parties. Given the changes at PPC, the delay comes as little surprise, though some say that it was also due to a delay on behalf of the Energy Regulatory Authority, which failed to solve a series of bureaucratic glitches.

This delay, coupled with the fact that the crop is no longer subsidized, has meant a significant drop in cultivation this year, down to 115 hectares from 400 in 2010. What the farmers who pulled out over fears that they would not get good money for their labors don?t know is that PPC estimates the market value of wild artichoke to reach above 70 euros a ton for this year?s crop.

Biodiversity

Furthermore, according to experts, the cultivation of wild artichoke also contributes to the region?s biodiversity, as the weed provides fodder for dozens of insects, which, in turn, attract dozens of migratory birds to Greece.

Scientists at the University of Thessaly are also confident that replacing water-dependent cotton crops with wild artichoke can benefit many farmers in the region, while their study found that using artichoke thistles to produce energy for Greece?s islands could reduce the cost of fuel by 500 million euros per year and provide an income to thousands of farmers.