Economic hardship drives Greeks into the ground

The Greeks who years ago fled to cities for economic opportunity are now returning to the countryside for the same reason.

George Mesthos
Kostas Vadevoulis (l.) left bartending for farming.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Giannis Papadopoulos might have the biggest smile in Greece.

Thousands of Greeks strike and protest on a nearly daily basis to protect their jobs and wages as civil servants, lawyers, doctors, even journalists. As a farmer, Mr. Papadopoulos has none of those issues.

Papadopoulos spent his 20s truck driving, computer training, bookmaking, and pizza spinning to earn enough to enjoy the urban lifestyle most Greeks crave. During roughly the same period (1997- 2008), some 200,000 Greeks left the countryside to work in such cities as Athens and Thessaloniki.

But after years of living hand-to-mouth, Papadopoulos eventually saw opportunity in his father’s 5,000 olive trees. He is now the owner-operator of one of Greece’s up-and-coming organic farms.

“Now I get to be the boss and do the yelling at my employees,” he says with a laugh.

Some 50,000 Greeks have become farm laborers in one capacity or another in the past three years, according to official statistics. Most of them, like Papadopoulos, are returning to their family livelihood after trying to make a life in the city. But agricultural opportunity is also drawing Greeks with no previous experience in farm work.

With the increased interest in agriculture, the American Farm School in Thessaloniki has been flooded with new students, according to director Evangelos Vergos. A cheesemaking class designed for eight students has enrolled 42. All 29 agriculture courses combined have added an additional 77 students.

“It’s a good problem to have,” Mr. Vergos says. “The financial crisis is an issue, but it is also a huge opportunity.” While some Greeks protest to protect their jobs, others are taking advantage of the turbulent marketplace to pursue new ventures.

Kostas Vadevoulis is a former bar owner who traded in his jeans and button-down shirt for gray overalls, rubber waders, and a herd of German heifers. He may now have more time to spend with his family, but ultimately the switch was a matter of economic necessity. “With the [financial] crisis,” Mr. Vadevoulis says, “Greeks just aren’t spending as much as they used to.”

Vadevoulis plans to supply dairy to a Greek specialty cheesemaker, headquartered in his town of Metsovo. He expects the milk his cows produce to bring in a far more stable revenue than a 9-to-5 job.

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