Samos Futures: Oil, Wine and Honey and Eco-Tourism?

samos stamp

The crisis has and is sharpening the thinking of many on this island and there is a growing consensus that a sustainable and meaningful future lies in the manner in which we use our greatest treasure – the island itself with its bounteos nature and outstanding beauty. But how do we get there?  To provide some answers, we started by looking at wine production, as the sweet dessert wine of Samos is probably the most famous of all the island’s products.

Once we started to look at the issue of wine production and growing on Samos it became clear that many of the issues raised were not just particular to the wine industry but were evident in much of Samos’ agricultural production and organisation.

In our opinion, the most problematic factor is that most of the farmers cannot survive from farming alone. It simply does not offer sufficient income to support the farmers. This means that many  have other jobs which provide the needed cash income for their household. The income they receive from their grapes and olives, the 2 main crops here, is not enough to allow them to devote all their time to their farms. The most valued land for grape production is on the higher slopes of Samos’ mountains. These are time consuming to both access and maintain. Ambelos has many farmers who need 30 to 40 minutes in their pick ups to get to their lands on the mountain along hard to maintain  mountain tracks. Many have vinyards which are separated by kilometres of rough track again encouraging farmers to use sprays which can cut down their visits.

This fundamental lack of time, has many repercussions. Lacking the necessary time to weed and care for their vinyards, many farmers revert to weed killers and sprays. As one young farmer told us, he just didn’t have the time to manage his grapes in any other way. “One day’s spraying means I needn’t go back for 3 months”. He knew that weeding by hand was better but on an island where weed growth can be prodigious he didn’t have the time, because he can’t secure enough income from his surplus crops to pay for his time or that of another worker.

In addition, as we explain in more detail later, the farmers’ focus on quantity over quality with respect to the 2 main crops of grapes and olives has many repercussions one being a further impulse to use chemical fertilizers to boost the quantity of the crop.

Staying with Chemicals

We have no hard data about the use of agri chemicals on Samos. But there is plenty of local evidence of farmers spraying their lands and feeding their crops with chemicals. The countless discarded bottles of agri-chems by the roadside also suggests widespread and extensive use. We have also heard from farmers who can remember the days when they and their father’s were covered in DDT powder after a day dusting the crops.  The dangers of DDT are now known and its use banned, but it still rare to see farmers wearing adequate masks when spraying.

Farmers know that they risk health problems but the effects are rarely immediate. They can also see that they ‘kill the land’ by their weed-killers. The summer bakes the bare earth in the summer and the vines are all that grow in a soil devoid of life.

Agri-chemicals, as we observed , meet the needs of many farmers on Samos. Waves of emmigration between the end of the civil war and the overthrow of the Junta left behind both a smaller and older group of farmers who in turn found themselves caring for more land as family members left. Added to this difficulty was that many of the young people who remained had no intention of following their parents onto the land. Farming had no place in youth culture and certainly was not likely to produce the types of income to support the lifestyles which were now being popularised in the media and being increasingly embraced by the island’s young population. Paniotis typifies this shift and broke out of the family farming tradition by being the first in his family to go to university and then going on to work for a bank. His family’s lands are both extremely beautiful and highly productive – grapes and citrus fruits, but he has absolutely no interest and just laughs out loud at the idea of ever working on the land. For him it is totally absurd and outside his sense of himself and his hopes. There are many like our friend, Paniotis on Samos who have separated themselves totally from the land and don’t even consider participating at any level in maintaining their family lands.

It is this kind of context which makes Samos so ripe to be seduced by agri-chemicals with its promise of helping farmers maintain and work their lands with less labour. It is also seductive in that it promises a level of security against the vagaries of nature and disease. Although it can never offer total protection – drought, gales, hale storms, heat waves and the like can devastate a year’s work. But with respect to common diseases, agri-chemicals offer much more promise which  understandably attracts farmers. A good example of this was provided by a local bee- keeper who told us about her experience of attending a seminar on biological production of honey a couple of years ago. The seminar attracted nearly 200 bee-keepers. After a couple of hours, one of the beekeepers asked the visiting teacher to tell them about the latest antibiotics which were effective against the common bee diseases which can wipe out their hives. Our informant told us that the teacher was dumb struck and said have you not heard a word I have said over the past 2 hours. This is a seminar on biological production and bee care and is completely opposed to the use of agri-chemicals. At this point, most of the audience got up and left leaving behind just 6 bee-keepers!

Samos produces superb honey largely because of the richness and diversity of the flora and the forests. But sadly much of it is contaminated by high dosages of antibiotics which the bee-keepers use to protect their hives. However, easy condemnation of the bee-keepers needs to be tempered by an awareness that farming is intrinsically insecure and where margins are squeezed they will understandably look for ways including toxic antibiotics to minimise the risk of wipe-out.

As with human life, there is now more than enough evidence that the long term impact of many toxic agri-chemicals is not good for the well-being of the environment as a whole and for those who work the land in particular.

Samos is an island of outstanding natural beauty. Biologists laud the extraordinary richness of its wild flowers which blanket many slopes and hillsides in the spring and early summer. It is a ‘green’ island with rivers and streams, thick pine and deciduous forests, valleys  bursting with vegetation even in the heat of the summer. And all this is set in the beautiful Aegean.

About 7 years ago, a German botanist published a book on the flora of Samos in which he warned that extensive use of agri-chemicals was already damaging the flowers and action was needed to prevent further damage to what was a precious environment.

Even before this crisis, many people on Samos realised that their biggest asset in term of tourism was the island itself, with its beaches and nature. People here will tell you of the variety of walkers’ paths that connect villages with their lands scattered on the mountain side; of the small stone huts that could be converted into overnight shelters for walkers; of how nature tourism could bring new life to villages and the island without the island being destroyed in the process.

But there is no sign of any systematic action to promote this line of development despite the fact that the crisis has made many re-think their priorities for the future. There are many here who  firmly believe that the future well being of the island and its people could be secured through ecological based  tourism and agricultural produce including special wines and olive oil.


The on-going use of toxic agri-chemicals is not a matter of the character of the farmer, it is a matter foremost of income and secondly the organisation of production. With more income the farmers would have no need to find other wages. They would have more time to care for their land in non toxic ways and have the capacity to bring in additional help at key moments in the cultivation and harvesting of the crops. Secondly, it is obvious that the traditional family based ways of farming the land are no longer fit for purpose. As the farmers age, and younger people either leave or show no interest in the lands, there is simply not the pool of household labour to draw upon. In recent  years this problem has been eased by the influx of migrant labour especially from Albania, but as the crisis has deepened even this labour is no longer affordable. Hence more and more land is abandoned. If farming is ever to be part of a sustainable future for the island we have to start exploring new imaginative ways of working the land which goes beyond the household to embrace wider forms of co-operation. With unemployment soaring there is no absolute shortage of labour but it won’t translate into more farmers unless we consider ways to make it into work that is both rewarding and enjoyable.

In our opinion, to see the problem of excessive agri-chemical use as being due to farmers’ character or education misses the point. Classes and propaganda on the benefits of organic farming methods will be largely ignored unless it can provide the income necessary to live and work without fear, on and from the land.

As we have already noted, income from both grapes and olives favours quantity over quality which in turn encourages use of fertilizers and sprays. It is common knowledge here that fertilizers can allow you to double or triple the yield.

In addition, we came across a system in which quality was compromised both in terms of wine and olive oil production.

In the case of wine production this is under the control of the island’s Union of Wine Co-operatives. Legislated in 1934 to have sole control of wine production after a bitter struggle with private wine merchants who ‘were drinking the blood of the farmers’ it set about setting up a system that allowed farmers to be paid even if their grape crops were poor and diseased.

There were a number of reasons for this, not the least being the recognition that the moscato grape which is the principal vine variety and from which the famous Samos sweet wine is made, is susceptible to disease which can ruin a crop in days. This is especially true for the vines which are cultivated at or near sea level. Those grown at the high altitudes are far more resistant which is why these vinyards are highly valued.

To protect farmers who experienced poor harvests the Union was prepared to accept and pay for ‘sick  grapes’, albeit at a lower rate than good grapes. This feature of the Union is highly valued and clearly gives farmers some assurance that at least some income can be earned.

The farmers we met did not want to see the Union stopping the system of paying for poor grapes but they did feel that the payments for good grapes was not sufficient and that there was no income incentive to shift to more intensive  biological systems that would also reduce their yields. As the Union’s general manager told us during an interview, the current premium does not encourage biological production and accounts for little of their wine output. We gained no sense that the Union was looking to encourage biological production even though organic wines are now sought after and have the potential to increase farmers’ incomes. Moreover, the Union is also the major supplier of agri-chemicals to all Samos farmers and must be a significant income stream. When we pressed him on this, he did say that the Union did try to identify those agri-chemicals which were ‘soft’ in terms of their impact, but that was about the extent of their concern.

But the system of payments seems to have had some unfortunate, unintended consequences. For example, there are now more vinyards at lower altitudes which are more susceptible to disease, but are still worth cultivating as they will be paid whatever the quality. Inevitably, over time the system has tolerated the need of time pressed farmers to harvest the crop in ways which don’t enhance the quality of the harvest. According to Dean Stergides, writing about Samos wine in the Athens News in 2001 he attributed this to the Union of Wine Cooperatives’ monopolistic position:

“The cooperative’s seizure of production has thwarted the emergence of
individual estates and the corresponding plurality necessary to the further
development of the island’s wine industry. The vast majority of grape-growers
have no idea how muscat wine is made and probably couldn’t care less.
This is the best explanation I can think of to justify the total ignorance and
indifference among local farmers, to what constitutes a quality grape, that I
witnessed recently on the island during harvest-time. Most grapes brought in
for crushing were in a pitiful state.
Grapes were often too ripe or not ripe enough. The sick went in the crusher
along with the healthy. I repeatedly saw crates of grapes standing on the
roadside for hours on end under the scorching sun getting oxidised and losing
aromas. Meanwhile, one of the cooperatives star growers was proudly telling
me that he was attaining yields of 40,000 kilos per hectare (about 5 times
more than he should). Technology and the heroic efforts of the cooperatives
two oenologists can only go so far. Unless there is also a change in
mentality, the island’s growers are in for a bumpy touchdown when the current
boom starts going bust. “

There is plenty of evidence of poor viniculture on the island. It is commonplace during the harvest-time of picked grapes being allowed to stand in the sun before being pressed; of seeing diseased grapes being minced with good grapes at either of the 2 union wine factories on the island. This is not restricted to viniculture. During the current olive picking season it is commonplace to see olives stored in sacks for days at a time before being carted off for pressing. Many farmers again because of time and labour constraints gather all the fallen olives with hand operated machines that pierce the olives which inevitably undermines their quality, especially when they are left for days before being pressed. All the guidance on producing the best quality olive oil stresses the importance of pressing as soon as possible after picking and taking steps to prevent unnecessary oxidisation of the fruits. Yet spend a morning in the main olive presses and you will see tonnes of poor olives being pressed resulting in oil which is of poor quality.

We interviewed the manager of one of the newer presses on Samos. He is committed to the production of high quality oil, especially organic production but he faces many obstacles. He was particularly concerned that despite the potential of the island to produce high quality oil that can compete with the best olive oil in the region, Samos had a reputation for poor oil. He talked of his frustration that so many of the farmers were not interested in improving the quality of their crops and queried why he should display posters at his mill showing how to improve the oil. His story resonated with that of another mill owner who told us that most of the olives they pressed in any one season were poor quality and there was insufficient good quality oil to make it worthwhile marketing it.

That the island is failing to make the best use of its 2 main crops cannot be explained simply by reference to the monopolistic position of the Union. It also seems to us that the principle of sharing the risk of crop failure is a good one for it meets the need to provide some degree of security given the vagaries of nature. It is hard to see how such a principle could be embedded in a wholly privatised system of farming which would have no interest in such communal insurance. There are however issues for the Union with respect to its position on biological production and its involvement in the supply of agri-chemicals. We would also question whether the Union has prioritised sufficiently the importance of maximising farmers’ incomes which would, we suggest entail a bigger shift towards biological production and embedding that within an island wide project of eco-tourism with all its attendant spin offs.

But the poor farming practices both with respect to oil and wine are essentially aspects of poverty and all its consequences. Oil and wine production to be done well are labour intensive. Both benefit from being processed as quickly as possible from the time of picking and not to be standing round waiting until there is sufficient amount to be processed. But this requires labour that is not forthcoming at least in the way it is currently organised. Harvests are picked according to who is available and not by the needs of the crop. A single farmer can take days to gather sufficient olives to merit pressing. Much easier to wait until the majority of the olives have fallen to the ground and then sweep them up, good and bad, old and new. The oil might not be good but still it provides some income even if sold at less than 1 euro a kilo. But what if farm labour was differently organised? What if harvesting became a much broader collective effort that would allow the crops to be picked quickly and when ready?

The same is true for the grapes. Often using the labour of friends and family the grapes are picked when this effort can be mobilised. Maybe the crop is not in prime condition but this is not the priority.

However, there is also a type of schizophrenia when it comes to farming. For whilst farmers might  not always take the best care of the grapes and olives they produce for income, it does seem that higher standards are applied to those crops where the wine and oil is intended for home use. In this case, farmers attach a high priority to the quality of both their wine and oil and reserve the best of their crops for their own use. It is not the case then that there is a complete disjuncture between growing and making as some have suggested.

What Can Be Done?

There are those on the island who do believe that with respect to wine making that the Union is part of the problem. Currently, one farmer who believes that the future for Samos wine is high quality biological  production is challenging the Union’s legalised monopoly.  To this end he has secured substantial financial backing which he has needed to challenge the Union through the Greek courts, and is prepared to go the European courts if necessary.

In our interview he made it clear that he believes the Union has lost its original vision and is now more concerned with protecting the organisation than it is with encouraging the best possible wine and the best possible prices. He believes that their control deters good viniculture and  that it should be open to allow others to produce and market Samos wine. He believes if given the opportunity he could attract and reward farmers for good biologically grown grapes and make a wine that could demand a high price. But, as he admitted, his approach could not offer the farmers any guarantee over crop failure. He would not be prepared to pay for poor grapes.

He is very persuasive and passionate but his fight with the Union has so far prevented him from opening his wine press and pushing on with his project. There is unlikely to be any quick resolution as the general manager of the Union made it clear to us that they would fight tooth and nail to hold onto their monopolistic position and believed that as long as it retained the support of the farmers then they would be ultimately successful in any legal battle.

He may well be right to be so confident for as long as the Union is prepared to compensate farmers for poor quality grapes – something smaller scale producers would find difficult – the Union can expect to be supported.

But monopoly brings with it responsibility and one has to wonder that the complete disconnection between growing the grapes and making the wine ought to be reconsidered within the Union. At the moment for example, we discovered that farmers have no idea as to how Samos wines are fairing in an increasingly competitive globalised wine market. During our interview with the general manager we were given 2 pages of rave reviews about the sweet Samos wines and details of their recent awards. When we asked some growers about this they said that this was the first time they had heard of such successes which at the very least suggests that communication between the Union and the growers is not all that it should be.

Within the existing framework of the Union it should be possible for a more pluralistic approach to be considered with each of the village unions which make  up the Co-op being encouraged to produce their own wine which could then be collectively marketed. After all, many of the world’s most famous wine growing areas operate in this fashion producing a wide range of wine at various qualities and prices under a common title of ‘Bordeaux’, ‘burgundy’ and so forth.

It is unrealistic to expect that the farmers alone can bring about the changes needed. As it is they have insufficient time to manage their lands and certainly no surplus for developing the marketing and educational systems which are now required. This is where organisations such as the Union of Wine Cooperatives are needed and something similar for olive oil production. Neither is it simply sufficient to produce a system of  incentives to encourage high farming practices and standards. What is more important is the creation of a system that provides the necessary income for farmers to care and manage their land, which in turn will sustain the village communities which give the island  its character and spirit.

We are on an island of great beauty and with wonderful resources. This is our treasure trove and our way to make a future which is nurturing and secure for all. The on going crisis  is making this paradise a hell for so many people who have no income and no work. It is forcing us all to re-appraise what we have and what we need to do. But it is only as an island united by a common vision that we can hope to succeed.

Sofiane Ait Chalalet and Chris Jones




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