One village ends an old Greek 'myth'

Plucking peaches the size of softballs off a tree, Filomeni Economou is busier than ever. Harvesttime has come for her one-acre orchard. She grins a wide smile of satisfaction, and speaks of her new riches.

"Until last year," she tells a visitor, "I could not afford to give any of my daughters a dowry for marriage. Now I can."

The Greek widow lives in Kolindros, a village of about 1,000 whitewashed homes where the sun-drenched valleys are filled with peach, cherry, pear, and apricot trees.

Kolindros is unlike any other Greek village. In 1977, its 400 farmers began working together in a California-style corporate cooperative. The result is a fourfold increase in the average villager's income.

For Greece, any cooperative is rare. By nature, Greeks are an independent lot, a trait that some scholars ascribe to a historical lack of irrigation systems which, in other societies, generally draw people together.

But the Kolindros experiment in cooperation has caught the attention of government officials. Barring major land reform to turn Greece's small farms into larger, more efficient sizes, corporate cooperatives just may fill the need for agricultural reform -- and help Greece compete better as a new member of the European Community (EC).

Kolindros lies just a few miles from the archaeological site of Philip II's ancient tomb, a dig that touched off a world interest in his son, Alexander the Great. In 1978, a Kolindros bishop touched off the Macedonian revolt against the occupying Turks by burning the church and freeing the villagers to fight from the hills. The village is also the birthplace of George Zorbas, made famous in the book and film, "Zorba the Greek."

Up to last year, Kolindros had not changed much. The population had reached a low of about 2,000 villagers during the 1960s. Others had left for Athens, America, or Europe. one villager, however, Spyros Papalexious, came back from the United States and spent almost 10 years trying to persuade the people of Kolindros to copy the corporate cooperatives used by California farmers.

"It takes a lot of talking to convince Greek farmers," Mr. Papalexious says. "They are by nature suspicious." The trick was to convince five people of the plan, then commit them to convince another five people each, ans so on. The great concern was that the plan was a communist-style collective.

It avoids a pure cooperative, however. It separates farmers from everyday decisions except maintenance of their groves. Villagers were asked to form a company by buying 36,000 shares, with farmers obligated to buy at least two. Shareholders then vote for a board of directors which appoints the management of the company, known as Adrotiki Kolindros SA. The company pays farmers for their produce, sells them such services as irrigation, insect spraying, and fertilizing, and processes their fruit in a $6 million canning plant for the export market.

Government loans and subsidies helped start the venture, which also received a $667,000 loan from a group of Greek-Americans. France buys most of the canned fruit, which is highly cherished for its quality.

The chairman of the board, Manolis Mpiliaderis, also happens to be the largest producer, with 18 acres of peach trees. "This is the first time that the people here are working together," he says. "Most villages put politics above the economy."

A similar corporation cooperative is being started among orange grove farmers at Hania, on Crete. Pasok, the socialist party in Greece, has expressed interest in using Kolindros as a model for companies nationwide.

Before the coop started, Papalexious says, "each farmer was at the mercy of every merchant, who bought the fruit at the lowest possible price allowed by the government. Now the farmers' produce goes directly to their plant, with high quality control and the highest prices."

Tensions always threaten to pull the coop apart. Farmers, as shareholders, tend to get overly involved in canning plant decisions or irrigation plans. Farmers also want to speed up plans for new plantings, such as grapes, wheat, and cotton.

The company plans to plant 150,000 new trees.And an independent food testing lab is being considered for use by all Greek farmers. It would rely on three villagers now receiving PhDs abroad.

One Greek problem that Kolindros may have solved is overmechanization of farms. Greek pride and easy government loans had put a tractor on almost every farm in the country, no matter how small. One survey found the farms seven times more mechanized than California farms per acre. In Kolindros, sharing of equipment had reduced individual ownership. Former Mayor Nikolaos Plastaras, for instance, has had to close up his tractor dealership.

The biggest concern for village leaders is the social impact of the new wealth on the village. This year's gross profits will be an estimated $285,000, and the share prices have tripled in value. The town budget is now more that $ 200,000, compared with just $1 in 1955. two banks, four discos, and two boutiques have moved in. And instead of just one church, there are now five. The population jumped to 4,600 in 1981; it was 3,300 a decade ago.

Villagers set up a small museum in the town square where old farming artifacts are displayed. A new courthouse is being built, the police station enlarged, and a gym constructed to keep children "out of trouble."

And on the drawing boards is a $7 million mini-mall, complete with a golf course and a 400-seat conference center for multilingual European meetings. On a recent visit here, James Rouse, the American urban developer, agreed to help with the mall's design, Papalexious says.

To filomeni Economou, the changes are all good -- except for the discos. Asked whether her daughters will want a dowry or a college degree, she hesitates. "Maybe they want education," she says.

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