Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Back to the land: A Greece-U.S. comparison

A front-page feature in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago reported on a trend in Greece--a trend for people to get back to the land, back to agricultural livelihoods. Journalist Rachel Donadio links that trend to Greece's economic crisis and the fiscal austerity with which the government has responded. Of course, it's also become trendy in the United States (though not necessarily a widespread phenomenon) for young(ish) people to get back to the land, to take up farming of certain types, e.,g., organic, boutique. So I thought I would compare and contrast what is happening in Greece with what is happening in the United States. "Apples to apples" data are not available for the two countries, but a partial look at the who, what and why of "new" farmers is possible.

Greece: Donadio writes of an "exodus of Greeks who are fleeing to the countryside and looking to the nation's rich rural past a guide to the future." With Greek unemployment at 18% and as high as 35% for those between the ages of 15 and 29, the agricultural sector is bucking this trend, having added 32,000 jobs between 2008 and 2010. Significantly, "most of them [have gone to] Greeks, not migrant workers from abroad." While the story features two 30-something couples who have moved to the island of Chios ("closer to Izmir, Turkey than to Athens) to take up smallish agricultural enterprises, Donadio reports that the greatest increase in new farmers has been among those aged 45 to 65.

Donadio doesn't make a big deal of the distinction between agricultural entrepreneurs and farm laborers, though she mentions both in the story. (A Legal Ruralism post about this distinction is here.) Regarding the entrepreneurs, Donadio writes:
In Greece, as elsewhere in the Mediterranean, most families have traditionally invested heavily in real estate and land, which are seen as farm more stable than financial investments, and it is common for even low-income Greeks to have inherited family property.
Donadio quotes the president of a farm school in Salonika, where applications have recently tripled: "young people frequently come to him and say, 'I have two acres from my grandfather in such-and-such place. Can I do something with it?'"

Agricultural roots seem to have influenced the decisions of the two couples Donadio features, both of which moved to Chios, where they had family connections. One couple, trained as agriculturalists but working in other sectors in Athens until a few years ago, are growing edible snails for export. They used $50,000 in family savings to get started. The other couple are cultivating mastic from 400 trees in southern Chios. Neither couple has yet to turn a profit, and the mastic farmers have turned to ecotourism to supplement their income. The edible snail farmers will have their first harvest this year. Both couples expressed confidence in their undertakings, and one is quoted:
In big cities, there's no future for ... young people, the only choice is for them to go to the countryside or to go abroad.
The same can hardly be said of the United States, where the fiscal crisis that began unfolding in 2008 has not been as acute as in Greece. I doubt that many young Americans take up farming because they feel they have no choice. Rather, those set to inherit farms still take over from their parents because of attachment to the lifestyle and place. In addition, the newfound popularity of certain types of agricultural undertakings seems attributable to rising attention to where our food comes from--to locavore, vegan, and organic trends. My students and I have discussed these trends here, here here, and here. A story in the Sacramento Bee in April, 2010 suggests that--as in Greece--those starting up small farms in the United States are typically urbanites and suburbanites drawn back to the land. (A related post is here). As in Greece, younger people in the United States are increasingly the ones drawn to these sorts of farming. (I'm reminded of the distinctions between how the working class raise their children and how the professional/managerial class do so. Working class families raise their offspring to work hard, be dependable, keep their noses clean, be reliable laborers--in short to be self-disciplined. The professional/managerial class, on the other hand, raise their children to self-actualize, to follow their dreams, do what is fulfilling--and the professional/managerial class can typically bankroll their childrens' dreams to some extent. Read more here. Something tells me that most young people getting into farming these days--especially trendy, boutique farming--are from relatively affluent families who are, in short, self-actualizing. They can afford the luxury and have been encouraged to take such risks).

While Donadio reports that many Greeks have access to family land, the same cannot be said of the United States. A recent survey by the National Young Farmers Coalition found that access to land was a major obstacle to those desiring to farm in the United States, second only to the barrier presented by lack of access to capital.

Based on Donadio's story, it seems that those who have recently started farming in Greece include not only the youngish in their 20s and 30s looking for an out from the economic disaster, but also the middle aged. In the United States, farmers tend also to be an aging group. As of 2007, about 30% of U.S. farmers were 65 or older, and the age of principal farm operators was 57 years. According to a recent publication of the National Young Farmers' Coalition, one in four farmers will retire in the next 20 years. So, even as fresh blood is flowing into farming, the business/vocation remains dominated by the middle aged. What is not clear is the extent to which the middle aged--whether new to farming or not--engage in intensive production agriculture or in smaller-scale boutique and organic farms. Either way, it seems that the demographics of farmer/entrepreneurs in the two nations are similar. Another similarity between Greece and the United States is that agritourism (especially in relation to boutique agriculture) is helping keep farms out of the red. See earlier posts here and here.

One distinction between Greece and the United States, however, may lie in who is doing the agricultural labor--versus the agricultural entrepreneurship. Donadio reports that most farm jobs in Greece are going to Greeks. In the United States, however, little doubt exists that immigrants do the vast majority of agricultural grunt work. Read more here, here and here.

Donadio makes no mention of what, if anything, the Greek government is doing to foster the back-to-the land movement. Of course, the USDA has several programs that seek to assist would-be farmers with obstacles to getting started, though the recent Young Farmers publication suggests that the programs are insufficient.

A final similarity is worth pointing out: what I label the "back to the land" movement is not subsistence farming in either the U.S. or Greece. These farmers are relying on markets for their products--and those markets appear to be very often associated with foodie trends and relatively affluent consumers. What better example of this than edible snails for export?

See another post about Greece that links agriculture to rural self-sufficiency here. Listen to yesterday's NPR story about Arizona farmers reclaiming land sold previously sold to land developers; that story notes that both established and new farmers are taking advantage of the land available--though the new and younger farmers are typically able only to lease, not to buy. A recent story about how the South African government is encouraging a new generation of farmers is here.

Cross posted on Agricultural Law.

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sheena said...
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