Young farmers abandoning their fields

There is a wide gulf separating those farmers who hang around at their local cafe all day and those who are real businessmen. And it seems that the state – or rather the administration and its services – is doing very little to bridge the gap between the two, yet data show that there is good will on the part of the farmers themselves. Young farmers in the European Union are a rare breed, reflecting decreasing numbers in agricultural populations. Greece, however, shows a higher percentage of young farmers than the European Union average (10.5 percent in Greece versus 8.7 percent in the European Union), holding fourth place among the 27 EU member states. Young people, with a penchant for hard work and new ideas, are beginning to invest in new much-needed forms of agriculture only to come up against time-consuming processes, a veritable wall of bureaucracy and, ultimately, utter indifference. Many simply give up. Of the 15,000 young farmers who participated in programs funded by the EU’s Third Community Support Framework (CSF III), over half are either facing serious business problems or have abandoned their efforts, according to the chairman of the Union of Young Farmers, Giorgos Kefalas. «They all talk about the labyrinthine process for having an investment granted. Files are stashed in hallways, they get lost and you are the one who has to scramble around to find them. In Greece it is easier to build a nuclear power plant than it is to build a cowshed,» he says. «If an investor plans to build, say, a livestock breeding unit, the minimum amount of time required for the business plan to be approved and for the relevant permits to be issued is 18 months. Meanwhile, there are 13 separate services involved in the process,» explains Kefalas. The union’s president has firsthand experience of the issue: His own application for a livestock breeding unit took three years to be approved. In the meantime, as people wait for the go-ahead, they face serious financial difficulties. «There are many who face financial ruin as they wait for funding for projects that have been approved,» says Nikos Antonoglou, a researcher and member of the board of directors of the Geotechnical Chamber of Greece (GEOTEE). He explains that when you have invested in, for example, a livestock breeding unit, there is a committee that arrives at the site to assess the project when, say, it is 30 percent completed, in order to approve a chunk of the funding package. «This process, however, is very often delayed,» says Antonoglou. «If someone has already made out checks for the cost of the project and these checks bounce, then problems have already begun.» The authorities argue that an assessment system is necessary. Antonoglou responds that while a system is indeed necessary, «its steps should be implemented quickly and effectively.» Another serious problem faced by aspiring farmers is that often laws are passed or ministerial decisions made that either cannot be implemented in practice or require a string of clarifications in order to be comprehensible. This simply means that the people who have drawn up these laws or decisions either have no contact with reality or did not take the time to study the matter in detail. «There is a great deal of ambiguity in the decisions and when you embark on a process, you never really know what the final outcome will be,» says Antonoglou. This has happened to a great number of farmers who followed a decision of the Agriculture Ministry to have their stables granted legal status so they can apply for renovation funds. Some 90 percent of stables in Greece operate without a permit. The facilities are usually not even connected to the power and water grids. This hurdle, of course, has been overcome on a practical level. «One farmer connected his wells to the electricity grid, another has put a line to the shed; we found a way. Others haven’t set up power lines but have bought generators,» explain the animal breeders. There are many, however, who became involved in the process of legalizing their facilities. Just a handful succeeded. «There are sheep breeding units located within the Mount Hymettus protected zone and the ministerial decision was not clear on what should be done about these buildings,» says Antonoglou, who has filed a request for clarification with the ministry so that the farmers in question do not embark on the lengthy procedure without knowing whether they will receive an operating license. The ministry’s response, of course, will take some time. Another risk a farmer has to face is siting his operations. As there is no register of land designated for agricultural development, one may build a farm anywhere where there are no woods, no archaeological sites, no nearby residential settlements, and provided the site has not been designated for residential or tourism development and is not a nuisance to neighbors. «Agricultural land, even in areas where it has been defined as such, can be used for anything from planting a field to creating a tourism development,» says Antonoglou. One can only imagine what happens when one neighbor decides to build tourist lodgings and another a cattle shed nearby. On the other hand, there are many farmers who simply decide to «bypass» official procedures. This, however, means that the business will always be vulnerable to the arm of the law, which may decide to extend itself at any given time. This is not a very comforting state of affairs for a new business in a competitive environment.