Santorini’s rare red jewel saved

«One hundred years ago, the island of Santorini had 4,500 hectares of vineyards and 2,000 hectares of tomato fields. There were 14 factories producing tomato paste. Now there is only one,» said Petros Economou, one of the few people cultivating the small, sweet, and now rare, baby tomato that only grows well on Santorini. No one knows whether the particular variety is the result of an adaptation to the island’s climatic conditions or whether it is a completely separate variety. Once grown on a large scale, its cultivation has been largely abandoned over the past decades, ever since Santorini became a popular tourist resort. In general, the development of a tourist industry goes hand in hand with a decline in agricultural production. Originally from Aitoloakarnania, in western Greece, Economou, an agronomist, moved to Santorini in 1987 after working in Athens for the Holargos municipality’s Parks Department. Now he is growing baby tomatoes organically, packaging and selling them, both fresh and sun-dried, under the «Anydro» label. The brand name (meaning «without water») means what it says – they don’t need watering. Apart from his one hectare of tomatoes, Economou also has a store selling farm produce. «Things were hard at first. We had to adapt as a family and then I had to invest quite a lot of money in the field. Today I could be living on the proceeds of the tomatoes but I wanted to experiment. For example, I brought seed from California. But nothing is as productive as the local variety. It doesn’t need water, in fact if you water it, there is the danger of disease.» Economou decided to follow the advice of one of his professors at university, who told his students to «invest in unique products.» «Farming is difficult. Santorini’s climate does not allow for great productivity. This year I got two tons of baby tomatoes from each hectare. I would have got 10 tons from mass production.» Since he could not aim for quantity, he decided to concentrate on quality. «I decided to grow organically, to pay attention to packaging and to sell at higher prices,» he said, adding that while conditions on the island are difficult, they favor organic farming. «The soil is rich, and because of the high temperatures and the wind we don’t have many problems with diseases. It is true that in the past two years we have had a water shortage. If we do get rain, it is usually enough. The pumice in the soil holds the water and releases it slowly. Because of the caldera, the summer months are humid, releasing moisture onto the plants during the night. That’s why you see plants that wilt during the day reviving at night,» he said. Economou recalled that the poet Odysseas Elytis called Santorini «a daughter born of a great anger,» a good reflection of the island’s peculiarities as well as its magic. The baby tomatoes are a product of that strange mixture. A passage by Manos Hadjidakis