Thomas, a farmer for “donkey’s years,” as he says, eats his pasta al dente. It’s a new habit. Before he’d throw it in the pot and forget to watch the clock.
“The good thing about pasta is that even when it’s overcooked, you can still kind of eat it,” he’d tell himself in consolation. But not anymore. Since last year when he learned that the firmness in pasta is not just about the cook or the producer, but mainly about the level of protein in the wheat, he’s become a stickler for timing.
A producer of wheat, barley and cotton in Nikaia in Larissa, central Greece, Thomas, now 38, decided last year to enroll in the educational seminars organized every year by Melissa Kikizas Food Products, one of Greece’s biggest pasta producers, and one of his clients.
“Sure, experience, the stuff we were taught by our fathers, is great, but some things have changed,” Thomas tells Kathimerini of his decision to further his education. “There are new methods in every step from production to sales, even different cultivation times. You acquire a different reasoning and start to care more about quality.”
This is what the seminars are all about, says Alexandros Kikizas, the company’s CEO and grandson of its founder.
“Those who join the program come out feeling that the final product, that small packet of pasta, is theirs. It’s one thing to just sell your wheat to an industry and another knowing exactly where it’s going and what happens after delivery.”
This year, the program has been significantly upgraded with the foundation of the Melissa Wheat Academy, where 30 producers, under contract with the company, will have the opportunity to attend educational seminars, in cooperation with the American Farm School in Thessaloniki, northern Greece. Once the course has been completed, one of the farmers will receive a full scholarship worth 8,000 euros for the school’s year-long certification program in Contemporary Agricultural Practices, which covers the cost of tuition fees, accommodation and food.
“We noticed that young farmers were leaving their parents’ fields and weren’t proud about saying they were farmers,” says Kikizas. “At the same time, the various problems they have had to overcome began having an impact on quality. Cost-cutting efforts started to override those to produce a good-quality product. So the aim of this initiative is to help farmers return to their fields, to be proud of what they do, to love the land and also to come closer to the final recipient of their products, the industry, and learn about its needs. Just as we who produce pasta consider the needs of the consumer, so the farmers need to know what their requirements are.”
As part of their education at the Melissa Wheat Academy, the farmers visit the plant and production line.
“We show them, for example, pasta made with the best possible products and pasta resulting from more mediocre products. This helps them automatically understand why the industry wants a product that is as high in protein as possible and a nice blond color, why we insist on quality,” says Kikizas.
The farmers also learn about modern cost-management methods, such as precision farming or controlled fertilization, as well as attending classes in theory.
“Some classes are held at the school and others in the fields, with the farming machinery, on the tractor,” says Kikizas.