Greek millenials trade big city life for the farm


Feb. 13, 2018 - Sterna, Messinia, Greece - Margianna Xirogianni, a 33-year-old medical physicist, left the city with her siblings to become a farmer after the economic crisis started in GreeceSTERNA, Greece – Facing a nearly impossible job search and rising costs in the city, Margianna Xirogianni quit the rat race and moved here, a tiny village around 80 miles southwest of Athens.

Xirogianni, three of her siblings and other partners set up Green Land, a cooperative farming business that produces and exports extra-virgin olive oil, olive paste and other olive-based products across the world.

They’re not alone. Like American millennials leaving Manhattan for New York’s Hudson Valley or Los Angeles for the desert towns near Palm Springs, young Greeks are increasingly trading in their urban careers and lifestyles for the countryside.

But Xirogianni’s move stemmed from desperation that most American millennials wouldn't recognize.

For a decade since the onset of the worldwide financial crisis, Greece's economy has been contracting. Youth employment stands at more than 40%, the highest in the EU.

“I finished my master's and had to work as a tutor, a waitress, and a clown at kids' parties because nowadays no hospital hires staff,” said Xirogianni, 33, who formerly dreamed of helping cancer patients with her degree in medical physics. “That's when it came to me: ‘We should start something of our own.’”

The situation is not expected to change soon. Greek growth is likely to remain sluggish as the country repays loans under a bailout financed by Eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund.

Entrepreneurs say the land is giving them a chance and a future.

“In the countryside, we're self-sufficient,” said Xirogianni’s big sister, Ioulia, 34, who left Athens and moved to Sterna with her husband and two children. “We wanted a better quality of life, where we'd get a decent pay. In crisis-hit Athens, the salaries are too small to make ends meet, especially if you have children.”

Petros Giannakopoulos, 24, felt the same way. After holding several jobs in cafeterias supermarkets and beach bars in Patras, the third-largest city in Greece, he decided to return to Agia Mavra, the village of 300 residents where they grew up in western Greece.

With no prior experience in farming, he and his family today own 200 sheep and sell milk and

meat.

“Nowadays in Greece, you spend years studying, and then you frame your degree and put it on the wall but the only thing you can do with it is look at it because you just can't get a job,” said Petros Giannakopoulos, 24.

He hopes to create a modern stable with milking machines, buy more land and a tractor and adopt innovations such as placing GPS tracking devices on his animals. He hopes to invest in an olive grove and an aloe vera farm next year, too.

Charalambos Kasimis, secretary general for policy at the Greek Ministry of Rural Development and Food and a professor at the Agricultural University of Athens, said the government had seen a bump from 11% to 13% in the number of Greeks working in agriculture in the past decade. Much of that increase was from a spike in farmers under 40, he added.

The problem now, he added, is that public infrastructure in rural regions might not be able to handle newcomers.

“Farmers need social infrastructure, schools for their kids, local doctors, banks, and so on,” Kasimis said.

Still, the new trend is a welcome one, he added, because Greek agriculture also needs to change to remain competitive on the world market.

For decades, Greece has been exporting agricultural products like olives and olive oil in bulk to other European countries that rebrand it under their own labels and re-export it. As a result, Italian and Spanish companies dominate the olive-oil industry.

“We need to increase the added value in our products, build on our quality, branding, and agritourism,” Kasimis said.

European Union policies that giving farmers subsidies have also undermined the long-term competitiveness of Greek agriculture, said Thodoris Vasilopoulos, president of the Young Farmer Association in Greece.

“The older generation learned to depend on subsidies and often didn't even bother to farm its land,” said Vasilopoulos. “Right now, subsidies are even given to retired farmers, like my 80-year-old grandfather.”

He believes farming is a way forward.

“Only if we support farmers will we see Greece's GDP grow,” said Vasilopoulos.

Ironically, the Xirogianni siblings are thankful to the economic crisis. Ff Greece hadn't tumbled into hard times, they say they might not have taken the step to become farmers.

“We've even started expanding to agrotourism,” Margianna Xirogianni said as she pushed harvested olives into a large sack. “Tourists can visit our farm and our home in order to see how olive oil is produced.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in USA Today.
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