Nick Lapatas spent 18 years living in Chicago. Then he returned home to Greece and bought a small farm. Today he and his son sell tomatoes in an open-air market in Athens. Despite the depressed economy and cheaper imports from Bulgaria and Albania, he’s doing OK.
“I don’t know how, but we are making some money,” he says. “Now, what is going to happen a month from now, I don’t know.”
The Greek government has long allowed farmers like Lapatas to charge their customers lower taxes, but under the terms of the nation’s bailout by European creditors, that exemption is expected to be phased out.
Lapatas is dreading the change.
“For us, when they do that, we’re going to stay home,” he says. “I’m going to take a few chickens. I’m going to put [in] a little tomatoes for myself. I’m going to have my land. You cannot do that.”
Some 90 percent of Greece’s farms are family owned and most are very small — 5 acres, on average. Yiouli Doxanaki, who runs a consulting firm that works with farmers, says Greece’s rugged and hilly terrain doesn’t lend itself to big farms. And small farms have trouble investing in the machinery that would make them more productive.
“We don’t have economies of scale,” she says. “Production costs are high in terms of, you know, buying everything you need to produce. And we end up with a product that’s quite expensive.”
As a result, Greece’s farms often have trouble competing internationally. They’re undercut by cheaper producers in places like Egypt and Albania. And they’re less productive than farms in the Netherlands and Spain.
Menelaos Tzouris runs a trading company in Athens that buys fruits and vegetables from small farmers and sells them to retailers. He says it’s almost too easy to grow food in Greece. People never had to try too hard to feed themselves.
“Other European countries like Holland or Poland, which did not have the climate, the natural advantage to grow, they had to do it using a smarter way,” he says.
Tzouris says Greek farmers are beginning to embrace technology, but they need to go further.
“We need to do a better job, have a better product,” he says. “That’s what we need to do.”
If Greece’s economy is to begin growing, it will also have to export more. Doxanaki says Greece has plenty of good agricultural products, such as olives and cheese. The challenge, she says, is to convince the rest of the world that Greece’s exports are worth the extra cost.
“That’s the turning point now,” she says. “If this doesn’t happen, then the farmers will have no reason of existing because they won’t be able to compete [with] other countries with the same products.”
But changing Greece’s image will take time — and money. The government lacks the resources to help much. Meanwhile, the ongoing economic crisis in Greece means the domestic market has shrunk as well. The end of the tax exemption will mean higher costs for Greece’s farmers — at a time when they can least afford it.