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Tapping into Greece's huge biodiversity

University of Thessaly initiative encourages farmers to branch out

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The Voodoo Lily, a plant mostly seen in the mountains of Crete and the Aegean Islands.

05 June 2011

It may sound like a joke, but Greece is the richest country in Europe in terms of its biodiversity, and when it comes to the varieties of its endemic herbs and medicinal plants, on a global scale it is second only to Madagascar.

However, at the same time, it is last on the list of producers of plants and herbs in Europe and is estimated to import up to 1,400 tons a year for industrial use and consumption. For some decades now Greek agriculture has remained focused on cash crops including corn, cotton and other subsidised cultivations, and has failed to tap into its natural assets, according to experts who have been conducting seminars across Thessaly for farmers looking to diversify.

The result of this inertia, and despite the level of know-how and abundance of specialized equipment available to Greek farmers, is that Bulgaria, Albania, Poland, Turkey and another six Southeast European countries have far outstripped Greece in exports of herbs and medicinal plants. While there are farms all over the country that specialise in these crops, these are individual efforts on a small scale.

In the region of Thessaly in northern Greece, for example, a number of farmers have come together to explore how they can switch over to the mass production of herbs and medicinal plants. Working with scientists at the University of Thessaly, the Agricultural University of Athens and the National Agricultural Research Foundation, they have already planted lemon balm, thyme, echinacea, sage, camomile, mint, calendula, basil, common soapwort, Sideritis clandestina (mountain tea) and other herbs in order to scientifically assess their qualitative and quantitative assets on a larger scale.

This initiative is probably one of the most interesting developments right now in Greece's agricultural sector, which has been stagnating for years. The initiative began at the University of Thessaly's Regional Development Department in response to growing concerns from the local farming community about the state of the sector.

The department organised a series of seminars that since last December have been attended by 30 farmers, all aged under 45, on herb and medicinal plant cultivation. They embarked on creating medium-sized farms specialising in the aforementioned crops as well as other organic cultivations, from which they estimate they will see a yield of 40,000 euros per year in this initial phase. Yields are expected to rise as production increases.

"No one else can be blamed for the demise of Greek agriculture, which became dependent on subsidies. It is now time to wake up and work in an organised manner," said Giorgos Kalfoglou, one of the farmers participating in the experiment.

On his farm in Larissa, Kalfoglou is cultivating all 19 plants on the list drawn up by the experts to help guide the farmers and has already made some contacts with Greeks in Australia who are interested in purchasing his crop.

Dimitris Kouretas, one of the experts conducting the seminars, explained that "in September, the plants from this first crop will be examined for their essential oil content in order to give the farmers a better idea of which plants they ought to stick to."

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