SOCIETY

Island farmers defy trend of turning to tourism

What is the main source of income on Myconos? How about on Serifos? Most people don?t even have to think about the answer: rental rooms, hotels, bars and restaurants. Yet on many Aegean islands there are still those who have chosen to work as farmers, going against the flow and overcoming numerous obstacles.

Just three years ago, Rita Paraskevopoulou decided to start rearing goats and sheep on a livestock farm on Serifos. On the same island, Christos Chrysoloras produces wine from local grape varieties and has been waiting for over two years to receive the subsidies he is entitled to as a young farmer.

Meanwhile, on one island where agricultural production continues to flourish, Naxos, Nikos Nikolakis has set up a greenhouse for garden produce. He uses rainwater for irrigation that he collects in a large tank, though sometimes he needs to ask his neighbors for water from their drilled wells.

Tasos Asimomytis, also a fruit and vegetable grower, had the exact opposite problem on Myconos: too much water. ?There was a lot of rain and flooding that destroyed a lot of my greenhouses,? he told Kathimerini. ?It doesn?t rain often in the Cyclades, but when it does it really comes down hard.?

Running small holdings, scattered all over the islands in areas that are often hard to get to, these farmers are in a constant battle against the demand for water, land and labor by the tourism industry. To make matters worse, their connection to the mainland is wholly dependent on the weather and a long period of being cut off can easily spell disaster. While there are special state and European Union programs to help farmers, and especially on the islands, they say that the red tape involved makes them almost impossible to attain, even though the promotion of local products could be the exact boost Greece?s tourism industry needs. They are not about to give up though.

Nikolakis returned to the island of his birth, Naxos, at the age of 30 in order to become a farmer. ?Tourism isn?t for me,? he said. ?It?s tempting to build 10 rooms, rent them out and live on the proceeds for the entire year, but, if you think about it, it means getting into debt with banks.

?As a trained agronomist I could find much more lucrative work than growing fruit and veg, but it?s important to lead the kind of life you want to lead,? he added.

Nikolakis is lucky in that Naxos, despite being a very popular holiday destination for international and domestic visitors, has by and large managed to salvage some of its agricultural character.

?There is agricultural production in the mountains, but the land that produced the first watermelons of the season and the coastal areas that gave us so many beautiful early and cheap vegetables have now been transformed into swimming pools,? explained Nikolakis, listing some of the island?s staples: tomatoes, string beans, cucumbers, lettuces, peppers, herbs and so on. On his own farm, Nikolakis grows a variety of garden produce, because, as he explained, it helps to stop the propagation of plant diseases and pests.

He only sells his produce on the island, which is why he hasn?t considered using organic techniques, arguing that the locals wouldn?t be willing to pay more for organic.

The biggest problem Nikolakis faces, like so many other farmers in the region, is the scarcity of water. ?Naxos has underground water,? he explained, ?but the tourism explosion has depleted all the natural reserves. It takes a lot of water to keep the lawns green and the pools filled with clean water.?

Chrysoloras spent days trying to get what he was entitled to from the Ministry of Agricultural Development. He knocked on doors, got into arguments, yelled and begged. Finally, one employee decided to look into his application and led him to a room stacked with files. ?See all this?? he told him. ?These are all about payments that are overdue. When they get paid, then you?ll get your money too.?

The organic vintner from Serifos is owed 6,000 euros in subsidies from a state-run program for young farmers that is to a large extent funded by the European Union. ?We understand that there is a crisis and that funds have been frozen,? he said. ?All we want is someone to tell us when we?ll get the money. The amount may not seem large to some, but it is important to us because we had been counting on it to pay off debts.?

The lack of communication from the authorities is also a problem for Paraskevopoulou, who raises sheep and goats on Serifos. ?They said that we?d get some money from a European Union program that the farm is entitled to, but later,? she said.

Other than the milk she produces at her farm, Paraskevopoulou also makes and sells rice pudding and spoon sweets, as well as growing capers and making sun-dried tomatoes. Despite the difficulties, she has never considered turning her farm into holiday apartments. ?Maybe if I had a hotel I would be worry-free and able to get on with my life. But I get a lot of satisfaction from people being able to see what I have achieved,? she claimed proudly. As far as the returns are concerned, she said that ?all you make is a decent wage. Work takes work. The more you go after it, the more you get. When you abandon it, it also abandons you.?

Being a farmer on Myconos sounds like a joke, but Asimomytis sees nothing to laugh about when it comes to his farm.

He had a very simple explanation about why he decided to become a farmer rather than getting involved in Myconos?s multimillion-euro tourism industry: ?My father had a small farm on Delos and ever since I was a boy I have loved scratching about in the dirt.? Did he ever think about doing something more lucrative? ?It?s crossed my mind a number of times,? he admitted, ?but I never reached the point of doing it. Anyway, we still need farmers, right??

Asimomytis has 0.3 hectares of greenhouses as well as outdoor cultivations. He went into farming in 1992, when he received approval to apply for subsidies from an EU program for greenhouses. Things were different back then, of course. ?There was a lot more demand,? he told Kathimerini. ?Now supermarkets import everything and they no longer buy our stuff.? Don?t tourists prefer locally grown fruit and vegetables? ?Sure, those who know the difference and look for it. But they are very few and far between.?

Even though Asimomytis admitted that he barely scrapes by, one of his sons studied to enter the same profession. ?He attended the Thessaloniki School of Agriculture and now he?s here with me, learning about cultivation. It?s tough, but you can?t achieve anything in life without a struggle.?