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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

With Work Scarce in Athens, Greeks Go Back to the Land

Eirini Vourloumis for The New York Times
Vassilis Ballas and his wife, Roula Boura, extracted the gum from a mastic tree on their 400-tree farm in Chios, Greece.

Click here to read the full article from Rachel Donadio in the New York Times

CHIOS, Greece — Nikos Gavalas and Alexandra Tricha, both 31 and trained as agriculturalists, were frustrated working on poorly paying, short-term contracts in Athens, where jobs are scarce and the cost of living is high. So last year, they decided to start a new project: growing edible snails for export.

As Greece’s blighted economy plunges further into the abyss, the couple are joining with an exodus of Greeks who are fleeing to the countryside and looking to the nation’s rich rural past as a guide to the future. They acknowledge that it is a peculiar undertaking, with more manual labor than they, as college graduates, ever imagined doing. But in a country starved by austerity even as it teeters on the brink of default, it seemed as good a gamble as any.

Mr. Gavalas and Ms. Tricha chose to move back to his native Chios, an Aegean island closer to Izmir, Turkey, than to Athens. They set up their boutique farm using $50,000 from their families’ life savings. That investment has yet to pay off; they will have their first harvest later this year. But the couple are confident about their decision.

“When I call my friends and relatives in Athens, they tell me there’s no hope, everything is going from bad to worse,” Ms. Tricha said on a recent afternoon, as she walked through her greenhouse, where thousands of snails lumbered along on rows of damp wooden boards. “So I think our choice was good.”

Unemployment in Greece is now 18 percent, rising to 35 percent for young people between the ages of 15 and 29 — up from 12 percent and 24 percent, respectively, in late 2010. But the agricultural sector has been one of the few to show gains since the crisis hit, adding 32,000 jobs between 2008 and 2010 — most of them taken by Greeks, not migrant workers from abroad, according to a study released this fall by the Pan-Hellenic Confederation of Agricultural Associations.

“The biggest increase is in middle-aged people between 45 and 65 years old,” said Yannis Tsiforos, the director of the confederation. “This shows us that they had a different sort of employment in the past.”

In Greece, as elsewhere in the Mediterranean, most families have traditionally invested heavily in real estate and land, which are seen as far more stable than financial investments, and it is common for even low-income Greeks to have inherited family property. Increasingly, as the hard times bite deeper, many Greeks are deciding or being forced to fall back on that last line of defense.

Enrollment in agricultural schools is also on the rise. Panos Kanellis, the president of the American Farm School in Salonika, which was founded in 1904 and offers kindergarten through high school as well as continuing education in sustainable agriculture, said applications tripled in the past two years and enrollment in classes like cheesemaking and winemaking has been rising.

Mr. Kanellis says that young people frequently come to him and say: “I have two acres from my grandfather in such-and-such a place. Can I do something with it?”

A growing number of Greeks are asking themselves that question, and some are deciding they can. “I think a lot of people will do this,” Ms. Tricha said. “In big cities, there’s no future for them. For young people, the only choice is for them to go to the countryside or to go abroad.”

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