A co-op set up in 2013 by a group of young Greek farmers is going from strength to strength, expanding from its initial membership of 23 to 75.
Thesgi co-op, which farms 30,000 acres in Thessaly, sells spinach, broccoli, lettuce and cauliflower to wholesalers and retailers, at home and in Ukraine and Romania.
Member Afroditi Bontzorlou says the co-op is “young in spirit”, having been set up with a different attitude from older co-ops which were seen as too traditional.
“These growers made it clear that they wanted to establish a co-operative that was different from traditional co-operatives,” he added. “They would work as a co-operative, but they would also implement new ideas on how to work with the market.
To that end, Thesgi has a logistics department dedicated to transport management and communications, and a general financial department that manages all banking and payments.
And while all co-operative members have their own responsibilities, they are supported by a centralised organisation.
This is useful in dealing with the challenges the co-op faces. While exports to Romania – like Greece, a member of the EU – has gone smoothly, trade with Ukraine outside the EU “has been a lot more challenging”, said Mr Bontzorlou. “This makes exporting to Ukraine time consuming and complex. We’re now in the process of seeing how these markets are going to fit within our regular activities.”
There are different challenges at home, where Greek shoppers are concerned about health benefits and are happy to pay extra for food quality, despite the country’s troubled economic climate.
“That is why we are working according to a Western marketing model, with a larger emphasis on quality,” said Mr Bontzorlou. “We’re not the cheapest in the market, but we aim to provide premium quality through certifications like globalGAP.”
Although it also produces cereals and cotton, the co-op is focusing on vegetables to reduce the level of monocultures of its members, and because it is a growing market with greater yields, and requiring less water.
Weather and fluctuating demand can also pose problems – for instance, when cold weather in February hit lettuce production in other European countries, sparking a surge in demand from Greek producers.
“Demand is now stable”, said Mr Bontzorlou, adding that Thesgi had attended the Freskon trade show for the fruit and veg industry so it could get in touch with customers and set up a network to ensure stable prices.
“They need to be able to tap into co-operatives that are able to provide consistent quality throughout the years,” he said.
“We mainly operate with contract farmers. At the beginning of the year, we sign contracts that determine the volumes and prices beforehand. In this way, all our members know in advance how much acreage is needed and what prices are obtained in the end.”
But Mr Bontzorlou wants to see the co-op, and the wider industry, improve its knowledge of innovative best practices and new technologies.
“The Greek vegetable sector is one of the most important pillars of the Greek economy,” he said. “We need to invest in infrastructure, precision farming technologies and in improving our methods.
“We lack a central management structure, like the one in place in the Netherlands. We need an overarching organisation that takes care of management and marketing. This needs to be addressed in the near future, as we do have everything it takes to produce great quality. The weather is greatly in our favour. But good growing conditions aren’t enough.”