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Greek Pistachios Surviving The Crisis

Market stalls piled high with pistachios line the harbour of the Greek island of Aegina, where the local speciality is shielding many farmers from a devastating crisis.
Surrounded by a sea of pistachio trees, local farmer Nota Gika said this year's crop will be an excellent one when harvest time comes around in late August and the nuts are collected into large sheets with a shake of the tree.

"Local Greek products like ours are not affected by the crisis," Gika said.

Greece is the sixth biggest producer of pistachios in the world at 9,000 tons a year, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Aegina, a 40-minute hovercraft ride from the port of Athens, produces a few hundred tons a year and the nuts are considered particularly high quality.

At the bottom of her orchard, Gika's father lies buried in the shade of a cypress tree. Sixty years ago he moved to Aegina and began farming pistachio trees -- his daughter and grandchildren are continuing the family tradition.

The Gikas have become the biggest producers on the island and have an annual turnover of 1.5 million euros ($1.9 million). Their bright new machines select the pistachios, run them in a mixture of salt and lemon and then dry them.

They are then packaged up at a rate of 4,000 packets a day.

Production at the family farm was only eight tons last year but this year the harvest is expected to be 30 tons, without counting the dozens of tons that the Gikas buy from other local producers and sell off to suppliers.

"Thanks to this installation, we can start exporting. Before, we exported only to Cyprus," Gika said, listing China, Italy, the United States and even the luxury London department store Harrod's as potential buyers.

Nikolaos Stamboulis, head of the local pistachio cooperative which brings together 300 small producers on the island, said sales for the nut have held up despite the five years of recession that the Greek economy has suffered.

Sales have gone down 25 percent over the past three years at the main kiosk in the port where the cooperative sells its pistachios but it has made up for the shortfall with increased sales to smaller stores.

"We have managed to steadily still sell the same amount of tons and maintain our position. We have counterbalanced it this way," he said.

Heleni Kypreou, a former journalist who farms 800 pistachio trees on the island, said she easily found buyers for her one ton-a-year production.

"Farming is resisting well. The crisis is not really a problem," she said.

Kypreou herself works the land, which was given to her family in the 19th century after they supplied ships to revolutionaries in the war of independence.

"Tourism made us think that we could make easy money. Before the crisis, people preferred using their land to build houses and many pistachio trees were dug up. No one wanted to work the land," she said.

The crisis is drawing Greeks back to the land. The proportion of farmers in the population rose to 12.5 percent in 2010 from 11.3 percent in 2008.

Kypreou added: "Growing pistachios is a lot of manual work. Youngsters prefer to drink coffee at the port. When they're hungry, maybe they'll get interested."

Source: AFP
Thursday, July 12, 2012