An elderly woman stands on the outer perimeter of the allotment, paying close attention to what’s going on and occasionally gesticulating with her cane to make a point. Since her granddaughter became one of 400 lucky Thessaloniki residents to be awarded a lease on an allotment owned by the Aristotle University’s School of Agriculture, the senior has felt rejuvenated.
“The darn things need tending almost every day, but what the heck, at least we get to eat some decent vegetables,” she said, looking over the rows of tomatoes and beans, among other crops grown by her granddaughter.
Aristotle University’s initiative to lease 100-square meter allotments to 400 residents where they can grow fruit and vegetables under the guidance of the Agricultural School’s teachers and students, has proved incredibly popular and received 4,768 applications, while the school is also expecting the next package of 150 allotments that will be leased next month to be equally popular.
The lucky 400 were chosen by a draw in order to maintain the integrity of the process and to make sure that everything was fair and square. According to the university’s Sociology Department, which studied the data gathered on the 4,000-plus application forms, few of the applicants were unemployed, somewhat to the researchers’ surprise.
Specifically, just 13 percent of the applicants were unemployed and 16 percent were pensioners. Moreover, 41 percent had studied at university, 11 percent at college level and 28 percent were high school graduates only.
According to the questionnaires, the main reason why they wanted to get involved with gardening was to produce healthier products (44 percent), but also as a form of stress relief, or psychological therapy, according to 28 percent of respondents. Just 3 percent said that they wanted the allotment for financial reasons.
“The rent for each allotment is 120 euros a year, money that goes toward the infrastructure for the allotments. If two visits to a shrink cost just as much, then the allotment is clearly good value for money,” Dr Anastasios Lithourgidis, the director of the Farm – as the Agricultural School’s plot of land is known – said jokingly.
“The Farm is for agriculture students what a clinic is to medical students: the place where they get their practice,” he added.
The Farm covers 180 hectares and belongs to the Aristotle University. It produces grains, milk and meat and is powered by photovoltaic energy.
Giorgos Haniotis is an army officer and another one of the 400 lucky urbanites to get a lease. He grows eggplants, tomatoes, all sorts of peppers, beans and corn. He knew something about farming after growing up in a village, but admits that he learned a lot more from the Agricultural School students who help the amateur farmers as part of their hands-on experience.
“You plant the shorter plants first and then work your way up to the taller ones, going east to west so that they all get sun,” said Haniotis, sharing one of the tips he’s learned.
“Plants live to procreate, so if you don’t collect your crop they think that their job is done and stop producing new fruit,” Haniotis added, saying that young plants are like babies that need constant care.
The university provides the amateur farmers with fertilizer and plants. The process is entirely organic and the allotments operate on a drip irrigation system that helps preserve water.