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

Kathimerini English - - Focus -

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.

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