WWOOFing on Lesvos: Volunteering to grow organic olives, grapes and oranges
Living on the Tragakis family farm, a member of the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms since 2010
The 1950s represented the beginning of a significant shift in Greece’s human geography, as populations migrated from rural areas to urban centers. Today, congestion of urban areas, a spike in crime, higher costs of living and increasing unemployment rates are prompting a new generation of Greeks to consider returning to their families’ villages and getting back to the land.
For those interested in learning what it takes to run an organic farm or who just want to get away and engage in some physical work, an opportunity is presented by World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms – better known as WWOOF. WWOOF was started by Sue Coppard in 1971 in England as a weekend program for city dwellers to visit host farms in the English countryside and work in exchange for room and board. The program was extremely popular and has been expanding globally and evolving since its inception.
Every WWOOF member farm differs in terms of the crops produced, organic methodologies employed, size, location and types of accommodation provided. In Greece alone, there are at least 15 farms participating in the WWOOF network. The Tragakis farm in Gera on the northern Aegean island of Lesvos is representative of the growing presence of WWOOF within Greece, having joined the network in the fall of 2010. The Tragakis family have found that with the WWOOFers there are not only extra hands to do work but their presence also acts as motivation for the owners to structure tasks and make incremental progress and set a specific timetable for prospective projects.
The farm, which is located just off the gulf of Gera near Perama in an area of Lesvos that for centuries has been known for its olive production, was purchased by Dimitris and Kiki Tragakis in the summer of 1999. Before he went into farming, Tragakis had a successful career as a mechanical engineer. Daphne Tragaki, his daughter, explained to Kathimerini English Edition that her paternal grandparents were landowners and her father’s brother managed an olive oil factory, so the decision to turn to farming made sense.
Olives are the main crop produced on the Tragakis farm, followed by grapes and oranges. The majority of the olives are sent to an organically certified olive mill and the oil is sold directly to customers. Annually, the business produces also about 500 liters of red wine from the grapes grown, which mostly comprise cabernet sauvignon, and a small amount of white wine. Also, this season beehives have been introduced to the farm in an effort to produce a small amount of artisanal honey.
The farm is only 31 acres and has been certified as organic. It uses no irrigation and only organic fertilizers are applied in the olive groves, in addition to mulch, which is produced from tree clippings collected while pruning and clearing.
Tragakis has applied his years of engineering expertise to the farm and among other things has installed a system that utilizes phytoremediation to treat domestic wastewater. The process basically entails passing the water that leaves the septic tank through a series of specially designed leak-proof trenches that incorporate multiple layers of gravel, sand and soil. On top of the trenches, specific types of plants are grown. These two factors combined help remove any residual wastewater present in the trench, and employ the plants as a final stage of filtration.
Beyond his wastewater filtration system, Tragakis has applied his engineering skills to the development and design of an olive mill intended to produce top-quality olive oil that allows for the separation of oil that comes from the damaged portions of an olive while minimizing oxidation of the pure oil that is extracted.
With his sights set on developing a source of renewable energy, Tragakis recently purchased a piece of land adjacent to his farm where he plans to install a photovoltaic farm. The site will include five photovoltaic units that can generate upward of 350 kilowatts. The electricity generated from the solar farm will be sold back to the Lesvos power grid. At a conservative estimate, the solar farm has the capacity to satisfy the electricity consumption of approximately 50 homes.
Speaking of the evolution of the farm, Daphne Tragaki said: “The aim is to make it financially sustainable. We will get there eventually. Volunteers help toward that end.”
In an interview with Kathimerini English Edition, Julio Castillo described his experience as a WWOOFer on the Tragakis farm.
We work four hours a day, six days a week. We start at 8 a.m. and we stop working at noon. The farm needs management all year around and we do all sorts of activities, from shaking the branches and collecting the olives – which is a seasonal activity – to weeding, planting, feeding the animals, watering, and any other job that needs doing. Needless to say, most of the work is physical in nature and requires some level of strength and fitness. Working in nature is a fantastic experience, completely different from what I was doing, which basically was working in an office for eight to nine hours a day.
The location of the farm is just extraordinary. It is in the hills, some 200 meters above sea level, and has a fantastic view of the sea. In the summer, within 20 minutes you can walk to the seaside and have a swim, or just spend the rest of the day at the beach. The nearest village is a 40-minute walk away, and despite the fact that it is small, you can find everything you might need in the shops and there are some tavernas which are very nice with reasonable prices.
The accommodation is luxurious and the rooms are fully equipped. Nevertheless, this is not the average sort of accommodation that hosts offer; this is a very special case. Rooms can house up to two WWOOFers at a time and we have to share a room with somebody else. It’s a very good opportunity to meet other people and make new friends.
Our hosts are retirees who are very kind. They try to spend as much time with us as possible and they are always trying to ensure that WWOOFers are enjoying the work and the facilities that they offer. Whenever they find the time, they take us on excursions so we can visit other places and get more in touch with the culture of the place.
WWOOFers are generally young people – in their 20s – but also older people – even in their 50s – have visited the farm and stayed for a few weeks. For some reason, girls seem to be the most common WWOOFers. People come from all over the world, with Australians, Americans and Germans being the most interested in WWOOFing. Some come on their own, but there are also some couples that arrive. Generally the people who I have met are nice and easy to interact with.
The food that is offered is basic and includes all sorts of vegetables, preferably grown on the farm. If something is not available, our hosts get it from the supermarket. Meat is offered twice a week only, and once a week our hosts cook for us and we all have lunch or dinner together and share stories and experiences. The idea is that all the WWOOFers should eat together at least once a day.
This is the first time and it has exceeded all my initial expectations. I’ve learned so many new and interesting things about farming and about nature. As mentioned before, I’ve turned into a fitter person, and living in that kind of isolation changes your psychology and your perception of things. You just stop thinking about superfluous things and start focusing on what is really important in life. You also have plenty of time to read, or just to think and relax your mind while you are enjoying the place. Personally I believe that WWOOFing has changed my life and transformed me into a better person. I would highly recommend that everybody try WWOOFing at least once in their lives.