Going back to their roots

Alexandros Kottis

KALAMATA, GREECE (AFP) – Nestled amid ancient ruins overrun by vegetation, Nikos Argirakis’ estate in Greece’s main olive growing region usually has dozens of foreign workers toiling around his 1,000 olive trees.

This year, the 40-year-old had to ask his sister and elderly mother to lend a hand because of labour shortages brought about by Greece’s coronavirus restrictions.

“It’s how our grandparents used to do it,” he mused. “The harvest was always a family affair.”

Greece last month closed its border with Albania, the main source of its seasonal agricultural labour.

Fortunately, Argirakis found an Albanian couple and two Bangladeshi men who were in the country before the new restrictions were imposed.

Argirakis’ one-hectare estate is in the Peloponnese peninsula near the city of Kalamata.

Usually completed at the end of November, the harvest will now drag on until the end of December says Argirakis, who moonlights as a waiter in a Kalamata cafe.

Olives are stripped by hand, falling into nets beneath the trees. It is an arduous task few Greeks sign up for.

Workers gather olives at an olive grove in village Aghios Andreas, about 300 kilometres from Athens. PHOTOS: AFP
Olive oil pours out of a processing machine
ABOVE & BELOW: A man transports sacks of olives in the village of Madena; and olives loaded onto a conveyor belt at an olive oil business in the village of Madena

In the nearby village of Messini, Panayiotis Outsikas also has to rely on his family to help him bring in the harvest.

“There are no workers, we will have to harvest ourselves,” lamented the shepherd, surrounded by his sheep. Many estates are family owned and the population is old, it is difficult to harvest the olives and the harvest time is likely to triple,” said Ioannis Andriopoulos, who works at a local agricultural cooperative.

He also noted that in the midst of a pandemic that has claimed over 4,000 lives in Greece, many seasonal workers – who are often undeclared and fear deportation – steer clear of COVID-19 tests.

“It’s hard to trust undocumented workers. They haven’t been tested for fear of being arrested, but what if you’re infected?” the 50-year-old wondered.

Up to half of the seasonal agricultural workers are illegally in the country, according to industry insiders. As far as the eye can see, thousands of olive trees stretch to the sea in the Peloponnese’s Messinia peninsula.

Olive oil, also called Greece’s “green gold”, fetched EUR790 million in 2019, according to data from EU agency Eurostat.

But because of the lockdown, a fall to around EUR650 million is expected this year.

With a production of 275,000 tonnes last year, Greece is the world’s fourth largest olive oil producer behind Spain, Italy and Tunisia.

Around 60 per cent of its output is exported, mainly to Italy.

Giannis Pazios, the local cooperative’s general secretary, says the closure of restaurants nationwide earlier this year, and again from November 7 onwards, has dealt a blow to demand for olive oil, a staple cooking ingredient in Greek cuisine.

“We can’t sell to restaurants or grocery stores, and exports will slow down this year,” said Dimitris Karoumpalis, who owns an olive press.

“We have some room for manoeuvre but we must succeed in turning to new markets, such as Russia,” he added.

The sector counts some 600,000 small-scale producers, who are fragmented and poorly organised. Many producers prefer quick cash to a longer-term strategy requiring marketing and promotion costs.

“The olive oil culture in Greece is more of a family tradition, an amateur practice rather than an economic activity,” says Vassilis Zambounis, a publisher, website operator and co-author of a 700-page tome on olive oil.

“Olive oil jerry cans are passed out between families and friends. Greeks trust homemade brands more than those sold in the supermarket,” he said.