Tak­ing ad­van­tage of the coun­try’s huge bio­di­ver­sity

Ini­tia­tive en­cour­ages farm­ers to branch out

Kathimerini English - - Life - BY THANA­SIS TSINGANAS

It may sound like a joke, but Greece is the rich­est coun­try in Europe in terms of its bio­di­ver­sity, and when it comes to the va­ri­eties of its en­demic herbs and medic­i­nal plants, on a global scale it is sec­ond only to Mada­gas­car. How­ever, at the same time, it is last on the list of pro­duc­ers of plants and herbs in Europe and is es­ti­mated to im­port up to 1,400 tons a year for in­dus­trial use and con­sump­tion.

For some decades now Greek agri­cul­ture has re­mained fo­cused on cash crops in­clud­ing corn, cot­ton and other sub­si­dized cul­ti­va­tions, and has failed to tap into its nat­u­ral as­sets, ac­cord­ing to ex­perts who have been con­duct­ing sem­i­nars across Thes­saly for farm­ers look­ing to diver­sify.

The re­sult of this in­er­tia and de­spite the level of know-how and abun­dance of spe­cial­ized equip­ment avail­able to Greek farm­ers is that Bul­garia, Al­ba­nia, Poland, Tur­key and an­other six South­east Euro­pean coun­tries have far out­stripped Greece in ex­ports of herbs and medic­i­nal plants.

While there are farms all over the coun­try that spe­cial­ize in these crops, these are in­di­vid­ual ef­forts on a small scale. In the re­gion of Thes­saly in north­ern Greece, for ex­am­ple, a num­ber of farm­ers have come to­gether to ex­plore how they can switch over to the mass pro­duc­tion of herbs and medic­i­nal plants.

Work­ing with sci­en­tists at the Univer­sity of Thes­saly, the Agri­cul­tural Univer­sity of Athens and the Na­tional Agri­cul­tural Re­search Foun­da­tion, they have al­ready planted lemon balm, thyme, echi­nacea, sage, camomile, mint, cal­en­dula, basil, com­mon soap­wort, Sideri­tis clan­des­tina (moun­tain tea) and other herbs in or- der to sci­en­tif­i­cally as­sess their qual­i­ta­tive and quan­ti­ta­tive as­sets on a larger scale.

This ini­tia­tive is prob­a­bly one of the most in­ter­est­ing de­vel­op­ments right now in Greece’s agri­cul­tural sec­tor, which has been stag­nat­ing for years.

The ini­tia­tive be­gan at the Univer­sity of Thes­saly’s Re­gional De­vel­op­ment Depart­ment in re­sponse to grow­ing con­cerns from the lo­cal farm­ing com­mu­nity about the state of the sec­tor. The depart­ment or­ga­nized a se­ries of sem­i­nars that since last De­cem­ber have been at­tended by 30 farm­ers, all aged un­der 45, on herb and medic­i­nal plant cul­ti­va­tion.

They em­barked on cre­at­ing medium-sized farms spe­cial­iz­ing in the afore­men­tioned crops as well as other or­ganic cul­ti­va­tions, from which they es­ti­mate they will see a yield of 40,000 eu­ros per year in this ini­tial phase. Yields are ex­pected to rise as pro­duc­tion in­creases.

Ready for work

“No one else can be blamed for the demise of Greek agri­cul­ture, which be­came de­pen­dent on sub­si­dies. It is now time to wake up and work in an or­ga­nized man­ner,” said Gior­gos Kalfoglou, one of the farm­ers par­tic­i­pat­ing in the ex­per­i­ment. On his farm in Larissa, Kalfoglou is cul­ti­vat­ing all 19 plants on the list drawn up by the ex­perts to help guide the farm­ers and has al­ready made some con­tacts with Greeks in Aus­tralia who are in­ter­ested in pur­chas­ing his crop.

Dim­itris Koure­tas, one of the ex­perts con­duct­ing the sem­i­nars, ex­plained that “in Septem­ber, the plants from this first crop will be ex­am­ined for their es­sen­tial oil con­tent in or­der to give the farm­ers a bet­ter idea of which plants they out to stick to.”

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