submitted by Helen Tzortzopoulos on 31.07.2005
Organic fare on the march
As scandals continue to rock the food industry, organic produce in Greece is on the advance
FRIDAY , 21 NOVEMBER 2003
To meet demand, rapidly growing numbers of food producers in Greece are taking up the challenge of switching to organic methods of production. In the eight years 1993-2001, the area of land relying on manure and compost instead of chemical fertilisers and pesticides rose from under 600 hectares to at least 15,000, and the number of organic farmers shot up from 165 to 3,700, according to figures from DIO, the government-approved non-profit organisation certifying 70 percent of Greek organic farming.
Such expansion has been feasible only since abolition of aerial spraying of pesticide to combat the dakos fly which preys on Greek olive trees. The agriculture ministry phased out the practice in the 1990s.
Quality and organic farming do not necessarily go together, says Christos Carras, whose company, Stater, has for the past three years offered an organic Peloponnesian blend extra virgin olive oil in its upmarket food range. But organic cultivation is unquestionably better for the environment and reflects genuine concern for food quality and the environment, he says.
Environmental protection was initially the impetus to organic agriculture in Greece. "So many rivers and other water sources were contaminated by chemicals used in fertilisers, weedkillers and pesticides," says Spyros Sgouras, founding dead of DIO in Athens in 1993, now a vice-president of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM).
Under the aegis of Agribio Mediterraneo, the Mediterranean branch of IFOAM, Greece's sixth organic produce show was held at the Athens exhibition centre in Ambelokipi November 13-16. More than 150 stalls offered organic fare for sampling - bread, cheese from flocks grazing on the slopes of Parnassos, eggs, fruit, vegetables, wine and omnipresent olive oil and olives.
A dream come true
The olive is far and away the main organic crop in Greece. Organic olive cultivation covers at least 8,000 hectares, more than half the land under organic cultivation in the country, much in the Peloponnese, says DIO.
For young farmers keen on a cleaner, greener Greece, organic crop cultivation, dairy or poultry farming or even stock-raising now seems a realistic prospect.
Ever since he spent childhood years on ancestral land on the island of Kythera, Harry Tzortzopoulos, 29, has bent all his energies on returning. "I grew up in Piraeus, but from those four years, all my decisions were geared to getting back to the island," he says.
Harry knew exactly what he would do: revitalise the family elaiones (olive groves) scattered in the north of Kythera mainly round Karavas, virtually abandoned when everyone migrated to Australia. "It was fun helping my parents pick olives," he recalls. "My sister and I'd make huts from olive branches cut off in pruning. We didn't need toys. We'd create our own. We'd build houses of stones."
The dream is now being realised, and he was at the show exhibiting Tzortzopoulos family Astarti organic extra virgin olive oil certificated by DIO, now exported to Germany and Canada, with interest, he reports, from Italy, France and Korea. His qualifications for the enterprise were won from a diploma course at the Technical Education Institute (TEI) on Crete followed by participation in the European Union Erasmus programme, which gave him a year in the Netherlands.
The Dutch experience included time working on a big fully organic farm and visiting others. He benefited from contact with agricultural scientists at Wageningen University noted for promoting alternative cultivation techniques and analysis of traditional farming methods with fewer damaging ecological effects than widely accepted modern practices.
Harry first arrived back on Kythera fired with zeal to convert the island as a whole to organic agriculture. That proved mission impossible. He has settled for working to set up an organic growers' association. "There are various problems," he admits. "But I try to give initiatives to others."
He works with both of the agricultural co-operatives on the island, using their eliotriveia (olive presses), turning up first thing in the morning to crush his fruit in freshly-washed machinery.
Out of the permanent population of 3,500 - shrunk from some 15,000 after World War Two when mass exodus began to Australia, where an estimated 60,000 are of Kytherian extraction - 500 are olive growers. Of them, Harry claims 25 are now converts to organic cultivation. For the sake of ecological advantage, they are ready to bear the higher costs.
His mother Helen chips in: "They are paid only about 2.5 euros a kilo of oil. It's just not enough." Sydney born and bred, she came back to Greece with her Kytherian husband. "He wanted to go into the merchant navy," she explains. "Australia doesn't have one."
The family also prepares table olives, some marinated in olive oil with herbs and garlic, and jams. Plans are afoot to promote agro-tourism on the island.
New life in villages
Across the water in the south-west Peloponnese, Greece's longest-established organic olive oil producer, Austrian Fritz Blauel, continues expansion. With about 200,000 olive trees, his 300 growers are spread over an area round the Mani.
"This means 1,500 tonnes less chemical fertiliser, 25,000 kilos less herbicide and 150 kilos less insecticide," Blauel claims. He goes on: "We have succeeded in increasing the percentage of organic matter in the soils from 0.5 percent to 5 percent by use of compost produced from plant matter and the by-products of olive growing."
The net result is less erosion, higher resistance of olive trees to disease and insect attack, improved setting of fruit, better quality oil with better taste and preservation of natural resources and the traditional landscape. In human terms, this spells new life in rural villages and brighter prospects for future generations.
A spin-off from Blauel is a new label, Pure Greek, launched by a young Danish woman, Sofie Tvarno. "I wanted to introduce quality Greek products to Denmark," she says. Married to a Greek and living in Athens, she offers organic products from olive oil, Kalamata table olives, Peloponnesian feta and Cretan beer from organic malt and hops, using non-genetically modified yeast.
Some of the Pure Greek label olive oil is sourced from the other side of the Taiyetos Mountains, produced by Theodoros and Nikolaos Papadakos from high up at an altitude of 600 metres round the village of Soustiani just north of Mystras. Organically grown olives from trees of varying ages, some old, some as young as seven years, are crushed in their own press and sold under the Lithos label, the name referring to the old stone olive presses used in the pre-stainless steel era.
While olive trees in the Mani and on Kythera are the Koroneiki variety, those in Soustiani and elsewhere near Sparta are Athenolia.
In the Argolid, a major organic olive oil producer is Evangelos Dimarakis, on ancestral land round Kranidi on the coast opposite Spetses. He spared Saturday to man his stall, but shot off home to press on with olive-picking on the sunny Sunday with his three small children and others. Harvesting is just finishing of the semi-ripe olives to produce the valued, slightly bitter agourelaio.
The Authentikon organic label extra virgin accounted for 70 tonnes of Dimarakis output from last winter, another 2,000 tonnes plain extra virgin sold in Greece under the Ermis label, in the US as Kalliston. Taking over from his father in 1970, he first marketed oil in bulk, beginning to bottle his own 20 years ago.
And on Zakynthos offshore from the west Peloponnese, 15 members of the island co-operative have managed to get their act together and have produced an organic extra virgin olive oil which has found a niche in Veropoulos supermarket outlets, due to be on sale by Christmas. The group also produces tiny black Corinthian currants, likewise organic.
A major event for the sector was the fifth international fair for organic olive oil and agorecology which was staged in Spain on May 20-23 2004.
About Greek organic farming:
ATHENS NEWS , 21/11/2003, page: A02
Article code: C13041A021
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