Agrinion bids farewell to area’s tobacco farms

One of the first buildings to be seen as one drives into Agrinion is the tobacco institute, a branch of the National Foundation for Agricultural Development (ETHIAGE). Built alongside the huge stone drying halls dating from 1927, it once buzzed with activity. Even today, its warehouses are filled with the produce of experimental farms around the country. Until 2001, it had 40 scientific and administrative personnel. Today, Ilias Tzanis, a middle-aged tobacco expert specializing in Virginia tobacco, is the sole occupant of a small experimental greenhouse where attempts are being made to create a new organic tobacco seed. A replacement crop is also being sought. «So many mistakes were made with the subsidies program. We have been making proposals since the 1990s, and recently suggested that not all subsidies be stopped, but no one is listening. It is a disaster for the region,» he said, looking up from his work on a variety of asparagus that looks like a good alternative. «It isn’t only the farmers, who have handed down the tobacco fields from their ancestors to their descendants; it is the city’s entire economy that is under threat now,» he added. It is likely that 2006 will be the first in 340 years that the tobacco fields of Agrinion will remain fallow, where just last year the wide green Virginia leaves were spread as far as the eye could see. The reason is the agreement among the European agriculture ministers to stop subsidies as part of a review of the Common Agricultural Policy. So in the future, tobacco farmers will receive (for a short time yet) a subsidy equal to the average of the amounts received between 2000 and 2002, amounts that had already been reduced in recent amendments, irrespective of whether the farmers are still growing tobacco or any other crop. This will naturally benefit those who have stopped farming altogether, for they will receive the funds without any outlay. Incredible as it seems, nearly all the tobacco farmers in Aitoloacarnania and other parts of Greece have stopped production overnight. «In Agrinion alone, there are over 10,000 families producing 24,000 tons of tobacco. Until last year, Greece produced 39 percent of the tobacco in Europe. Do you realize what that meant for the economy?» asked Tzanis. Tobacco has always been a major export for Greece, accounting for 16 percent of farm exports and 2.5 percent of cultivated areas, while it employed 9.4 percent of the agricultural work force. It has been the main source of income for over 64,000 farming families, 15,000 more people in manufacturing and 3,000 people in the cigarette industry. State revenues from cigarette sales amount to 2.2 billion euros, and 7 percent of the total taxes collected. Taxes account for 73 percent of the price of a packet of cigarettes. In other words, the tobacco industry has been the main employer in the countryside and one of the best taxpayers. The reality, however, is somewhat removed from the figures. Kiosk owner Leonidas Athanassakis, who introduces himself as a tobacco farmer, has been in the business all his life. In 1989, he switched to Virginia tobacco, like everyone else. Last year, he abandoned his farm to open the kiosk. «I was one of 10 children, including six older sisters. Tobacco made all our fortunes. All the members of a family would work then, but were paid in full and were their own boss. When the subsidies arrived, we saw it as easy money, and it spoiled us,» he admitted. Instead of investing the money from subsidies (15 years’ worth) toward modernizing production, he added, people spent it on apartments and off-road vehicles. «But no one advised us. Quite the contrary. The banks persuaded us to take out loans for the equivalent of next year’s money in advance and then they would turn up the next year for the subsidy. However, the interest rates gave us heart attacks. We used to use just a small amount of pesticide spray but now you have to use a whole bag of chemicals. That’s when the tobacco diseases started. They are harmful for the crops, for the environment and for humans.» On the fertile plain of Agrinion stand the ruins of a magnificent mosque. Just a few meters away is perhaps the largest tobacco warehouse in Greece. As I take out my camera, a security guard approaches. After we start talking, I discover that he is also a «tobacco farmer.» Thanassis Tsaprailis is a typical case. A small holder (until last year he planted just 2.5 hectares) he also has made a career move. From his post at the gate, he gazes over the plain. «Now we would be getting ready to sow,» he mused. As a producer, he was against cutting the subsidies out completely. «It was a sick situation. The tobacco merchants were profiteering at our expense. The tobacco companies were favoring the black market. Forty percent of our tobacco was the surplus from Lamia and Karditsa, sold as local,» he said. Tsaprailis’s farm equipment is rusting where it stands. «You can’t grow many things in Aitoloacarnania, because of the climate and geomorphology. Olive trees, perhaps, but not orange trees. Tobacco was the only crop,» he said. Dimitris Farmakis, the 44-year-old father of four children, is a unionist and producer. «When I was a child, a whole family could live off a hectare of tobacco,» he told us. He is trying to stay on the land but he knows he won’t be able to support his family. The youngest farmer of those we met, Apostolos Velios, lives in Veleika. The district, outside the town of Agrinion, took its name from his grandfather, who was the first to settle there and plant tobacco. Velios barely had time to get established before he had to give up. He believes that young people should not even be allowed to start up a farm. «I got the farm, along with the tractors and buildings, from my father but others borrowed from the banks to start up. What should they do now?» He said the greatest fear is that the young people will move to the cities. «The way things are going, whether you want to or not, that’s where they’ll go. After all, one has to find a job. Of course, we are still waiting, but we younger ones are starting to think about it. Farming has become too difficult.» Vassilis Kousis, 35, has two children and both farms and raises livestock. He turned exclusively to livestock after the tobacco subsidies stopped and has a flock of 400 sheep. Between 1988 and 1993, he had his family farmed 8 hectares of tobacco. «In the good years, such as 1994, we earned 6 million drachmas. Last year the net profit was 2.5. And it was the very last year.» Greece’s farming population is 17 percent of the total, but everyone knows that it has to fall to 9 percent. The question is how this is to be achieved without an economic, cultural and social tragedy. The situation among Aitoloacarnania’s tobacco farmers does not bode well for the rest. This article first appeared in the July 2 edition of K, Kathimerini’s color Sunday supplement. (Photos: Pavlos Fysakis)