Just a few miles from the great Minoan palace of Knossos lies the fertile valley of Peza. The cultivation of grapes and olives has taken place in this region for over four thousand years. In 1933, a group of local farmers formed a union, the Peza Agrarian Cooperative. Today, Peza represents 3,000 farming families and produces eight varieties of wine and three types of extra virgin olive oil each year. Its headquarters are run by specialists in their respective fields of science, production and marketing, several of whom are descendants of the original founders.
Within the last few decades, Peza has taken off at warp speed. Their products are available in markets and restaurants in Greece and abroad. They also have 28 retail franchises throughout Greece, and plans for international expansion. Aside from offering their own wine and olive oil, Peza’s shops carry dried wild and cultivated herbs, teas and fruits produced by local companies to help promote other traditional Cretan specialties.
Evelynne Bakinta, Communications Manager for Peza, is the granddaughter of one of the founding members. She obtained a masters degree in marketing at Kingston University, London and returned home to utilize her skills, which is quite a privilege for her and Peza. Even today in Greece, the average farmer’s income is inadequate for higher education and the lack of professional marketing strategies have left gold-medal quality Greek producers in the dust compared to other Mediterranean competitors. Although the Union is 3,000 strong, it’s a tight-knit group in a condensed region. Bakinta says, “I feel like I’m working with my family”. Generations of small-scale farmers rely on the advice, expertise and marketing strategies of the home office, so it is logical that the Union is a family affair.
Business has not always run smoothly. Ms. Bakinta said, “During World War Two, the premises of the Union were destroyed but the faith of the people involved helped them recover, restart operations and expand with exports abroad.” In remote farming communities, basic services are few and far between. Peza has offered solutions. Bakinta said, “Peza owns an agricultural equipment and supplies shop, petrol station, and operates an Agricultural Bank outlet. The company also offers insurance plans and handles all the financial support from the European Union to the farmers. In addition, the farmers have flexibility in loans and each member can purchase supplies on credit. Finally, our experts help the farmers with improvement studies and plans as well as new farmers entry programs”.
According to Ms. Bakinta, some obstacles members face today are lack of distribution and lack of funds. “Each farmer owns small pieces of land and cannot really invest in mass-production methods. Peza helps members to overcome these problems by observing changes and adapting to new production methods and lines. Advisors for agricultural matters are always at each member’s disposal.”
As for environmental issues, Bakinta said, “The shortage of water is faced by drillings, lake-tanks and locks. Costs are generally high due to the land-shares being small. The rational use of pesticides does not cause enormous problems..
As for quality control, Nikos Fakourelis, Peza’s supervising chemist of olive oil production, is responsible for testing and designating olive harvest batches from each member. He too is a native of the area who studied abroad specifically to return to Peza to utilize his skills. Peza offers several types of cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil: Protected Designation of Origin (P.D.O) with a maximum acidity level of 0.6% and Elaia, between 0.1.-1%. According to the experts, the lower the acidity, the higher the quality. Both oils are made exclusively from the coveted Koroneiki olive, a robust, nutty-flavored fruit the size of a black-eyed pea. Peza’s overall annual olive oil production is 3,000 tons (60% bulk, 40% branded). A great percentage of their exports go to Germany and France.
In ancient Greece, the olive tree was considered so sacred that its destruction was punishable by law — even death. By the 5th Century BC, the limit to the destruction of this symbol of peace was two trees per year, per grove. Today, over one-third of all Greek olive oil is produced in Crete, the highest in the country by region, nearly all of which is extra virgin quality. More than 90,000 people tend to some three million olive trees that blanket over half of Crete’s cultivable land. Still, it is becoming increasingly difficult for small-scale farmers to survive with the low, fixed prices for their for their oil and increasing costs of production and living. Organic cultivation is still minimal due to these and other factors. [See, Sloweb archive, Rose, N. “Organic Farming in Greece,” 4/27/01]. Tourism and development is an alluring alternative to farming and entrepreneurs need not fear the death sentence to clear the groves for new resorts complete with freshwater swimming pools. One hotel owner here refers to the situation as “the war on water” between farmers and the tourism industry. Conservationists face their own uphill battle with governmental agencies on protection of natural resources versus economic growth.
Peza’s wine team is lead by Manolis Titakis, head of production and bottling, and Kleio Garefalaki a chemist specializing in wine production. Peza produces eight types of wines, ranging from high-end to popular table wines and has developed packaging and marketing strategies that have since been replicated by other national producers. Greek wines are just beginning to make a comeback in quality after a considerable gap between their coveted-commodity status throughout the ancient trade route. Wine production in Greece was stifled during the centuries of foreign occupation, however, the unique local varietals and ideal environmental conditions may soon put Greece back on the map with the experts on hand. As with olive oil, innovative Greek vintners are now forging their way to international recognition. Peza has designed a campaign to preserve native varietals, specifically the Kotsifali, Mandilari and Vilana grapes. Their overall annual wine production is 11,000 tons (10% bulk, 90% branded). Again, the majority of their exports go to France and Germany, respectively.
Peza’s headquarters house museum of regional agriculture and a little kafeneon(café) where visitors can sample wine and traditional Cretan meze(snacks). This type of agro-tourism helps to inform people of the island’s acclaimed healthy daily fare and preserve the memory of vanishing traditional trades of the people of Crete.
Nikki Rose is a pro chef and food writer living in Crete. The focus of her work is the preservation of traditional food ways.