The seminars offered at the Syngrou Ranch — home of the Athens Institute of Agricultural Sciences — are in high demand, proving that agriculture is trending in Greece. “This semester, we have 699 students enrolled in 24 seminars on 19 different topics,” says Georgos Balotis, director of the Institute of Agricultural Sciences. “A third of our students study to become apiarists.” This makes beekeeping the most popular subject. “The world of the bees is fascinating and beekeeper is a profession you can do in addition to other pursuits,” Balotis explains. This is why so many residents of Athens find this type of work so appealing. “We currently have five beekeeping courses,” he continues, “but our classes on winegrowing, arboriculture, olive culture and aromatic plants are also very popular.” Interest in these seminars peaked in 2013. “During that academic year, we had 400 prospective beekeepers and a total of 2,600 enrolled students.”
photo by Kostas Katrios
When Vassilis Gionis signed up for a honey-making seminar, he was not looking for an additional source of income, but rather for a way to unwind from his stressful life as an engineer. Today, he is a professional beekeeper in the Prefecture of Ilia on the Peloponnese. Vassilis had been working since his college days and found himself at the verge of burnout. “I was working for two different companies as an engineer. At one point, I worked for two and a half months straight without a single day or weekend off,” he remembers.
“So I started blocking certain afternoons off so I could attend the class,” he says. “And I enjoyed the classes, even though I had been up and running around since six in the morning.” Beekeeping is a family tradition handed down from his grandfather, who used to keep bees to provide honey for the family. Vassilis even got his recently retired mom to attend the class. “Each week she would get on the bus and come to Athens for three days,” he proudly reports. Mother and son both loved the course.
Photo courtesy of Vassilios Gionis
On a field trip to a beekeeping operation in Ahagia near Patras, he made a big decision. “I was blown away to see a queen bee hatch.” To find out if the profession of beekeeper is right for him, he completed a one-year unpaid internship in Ahagia while also working as an engineer on construction projects in Attica twice a week. “In 2010, I got my own bees and my beekeeper’s certification,” he tells us in the offices of the Greek Apiary (Ελληνικής Μελισσοκομικής) in Zaharo on the Peloponnese. His cousins and the rest of the family support him in his endeavor. “We mainly produce bee pollen and Royal jelly,” he explains. “I only sell small amounts of honey.” A great advantage of beekeeping, he says, is that he can adjust his priorities each year depending on demand.
Today, Vassilis’ new profession earns him enough money to make a living, yet he doesn’t rest on his laurels: He continuously learns new skills, tries out new methods, takes part in exhibitions. “I want each of my decisions to be scientifically sound,” adds the engineer-turned-beekeeper, who was born and raised in Zurich. “I take my bees to Vytina and Karpenissi to make fir tree honey, and to Argolida and to Pyrgos to make orange honey,” he explains. “This has to be done at exactly the right time and in exactly the right manner.” His new lifestyle seems to be less stressful. “When I’m working out in nature, I occasionally lose track of time,” he admits. “One time, I even went to the bank on a Sunday…”
“Why don’t you get a regular job?” friends and acquaintances would ask young Leonidas whenever he mentioned his intention to get into olive farming. Previously, he had worked in gastronomy for a little while. “From 2007 to 2010, I operated an Ouzo-restaurant in the Exarcheia quarter of Athens.” But then the economic crisis shut him down. “I went to South Africa and worked at a relative’s pub for eight months,” the 31-year-old recalls, “but the climate there did not agree with me.”
He returned back home and, being unemployed, began growing vegetables in his yard in Keratea near Cape Sounio. “Being a city person, I hesitated at first, but I ended up liking it very much.” One day his father, who hails from Kalamata, showed him his grandmother’s recipe for making soap from olive oil, using a large wooden spoon, a mold and a pot. “I fell in love with the soap the moment I took it out of the mold for the first time,” he laughs, “and I decided to get into the soap-making business seriously.” To secure the raw material he needed, he rented an olive grove in Keratea and began taking classes. “In 2013, I registered as a farmer and in 2014, I enrolled at the Agricultural Institute in Syngrou to complete the two-year vocational program for farmers,” he tells us. “I commuted daily between Keratea and Marousi, which is in the North of Athens.”
Two years later, he had his professional farming license and started an agricultural business named Ktima Thrinax — Thrinax Ranch. The name alludes to a tool, a three-pronged fork (in Greek: “trikáni”) used to blend the soap ingredients. Today his business, which he was able to build thanks to a partnership with the Business Coaching Center of NGO Praksis, produces body butter, wax ointments, and felt soap. The latter, which is blended with sheep wool, serves both as a soap and a sponge. “Soon, I will start an open soap manufacturing workshop where tourists can visit and make their own soap,” he announces.
At the same time, the young farmer-entrepreneur, who operates both the olive grove in Keratea and his family’s plots in Kalamata, follows he principle of sustainability. “Nothing we do here, like plowing, is for our own benefit only. On the contrary, everything I do is to benefit the ecosystem,” he explains. “To improve soil quality, I use aromatic plants rather than pesticides.” Leonidas is also a firm believer in the alternative economy. “My lease with the landlord in Keratea is paid in kind — I pay my rent with the product that grows on that very soil.”
He feels that he changed as a person. “I have become more patient, my soul has found peace, and I accept the cycle of life as it happens out here in the countryside,” Leonidas notes. “I act differently than I used to. I first ask how and then I address the why,” he concludes.
The residents of Kalamaki, a small community on the Pelion Peninsula near Volos, are eagerly looking forward to the grand opening of a new recycling facility and mushroom farm. Its designated director is a local, Kostas Frangopoulos. Many older villagers love to gather wild mushrooms, but professional mushroom farming, including species with pharmaceutical properties, is a novelty in the 300-resident village. This is why everybody is willing to contribute to this new endeavor by providing access to their properties or working alongside Kostas.
“The project ‘Pelion recycles biomass’ was approved in a new round of Greek grant program ESPA,” Kostas explains enthusiastically. Kostas has spent his whole life in West Attica; only holidays or vacations would occasionally bring him to his father’s village. “I worked in the service and processing sector for over fifteen years,” he remembers, “until the economic crisis hit.” He was over 40 at the time, and found himself on a strategic quest for a plan B.
Friends and colleagues made him aware of the seminars offered by the Institute for Agricultural Sciences. “I was intrigued by the mushrooms because of the mythical aura that surrounds them,” he explains. “The mycelium is the ultimate archetype of life.” After graduating from his program, he wanted to apply his new skills in practice immediately and searched available shady plots where he could put down the right soil, a mixture of plant fibers in which mushrooms thrive. Abandoned buildings, which are increasingly common in Attica, served as ‘hosts’ to his experiments. “Only once an owner showed up, but his irritation quickly turned into approval,” Kostas reports, “for what I was doing on his property actually protected it from mold, mice and decay.”
From the start, Kostas had chosen the mushroom species Lentinula Edobes Shiitake, which is safe for human consumption and has significant anti-carcinogenic benefits. “Abroad, this mushroom is very common and popular, yet here, it is virtually unknown,” he explains. “Other than myself, there are only two other producers in all of Greece.” During his start-up period, he built a loyal customer base, which encouraged him to stick with it.
“So I decided to give my work an official format and a perspective for the future,” Kostas says. Despite all uncertainties, he pins his hopes on the mushrooms. “I have a dream that one day, people will be eating more mushrooms than Souvlaki,” he laughs.
Translated by Kerstin Trimble.