Entrepreneurial young Cypriots are returning to agriculture, which is being transformed by technological innovation, smart investment and a focus on high-value-added produce.
A quiet revolution is transforming agriculture in Cyprus. Farmers have begun systematic cultivation of long-overlooked fruit and vegetables now made commercially viable by niche markets created by healthy eating trends in Europe. Always well-known for its citrus fruit, potatoes and olives, the island is also becoming associated with prickly pears, pomegranates, carobs, aloe vera and other produce that grow well in the island’s dry climate. Fostering resource-efficient farming and focusing on quality rather than quantity are key aims as the government invests heavily in modernising and reorganising the overall agricultural sector with the help of generous funds available under the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). With the sector enjoying bright prospects and an image rebrand, it is attracting educated young Cypriots who are adopting innovative and scientific methods to boost green and sustainable growth.
The Allure of New Farming
There was a time when every young Cypriot would rather wear a suit and tie to work in the city, than even consider the laborious work of farming and wrestling a living from the sun-baked soil in the slowly dilapidating villages of their grandparents. at is now changing. After decades of rural depopulation and concern that the average age of farmers was becoming increasingly older, young people are once again taking to the land. Working in financial services has lost some of its sheen after the 2013 economic crisis, and those who have turned their entrepreneurial skills and innovative thinking to farming are flourishing. Their success is also changing the image of farming, which is no longer viewed as a poorly-paid slog in a rural backwater. Running a boutique winery is glamorous, as is producing medicinal oil from the seeds of prickly pears that sells for €40,000 a litre. Responding to a renewed youth interest in the sector, the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), the first British university to establish a campus in Cyprus, now offers a popular diploma programme in agriculture and animal husbandry.
Quality not Quantity
After a lengthy debate on agriculture at the outset of President Anastasiades’ first term in office, the government decided on a sharp turn of direction. Cyprus could not compete with countries that produce in huge quantities and at low cost, but it could compete when it comes to quality, organic farming, bioproduction and superfoods. The decades-old success of Cyprus’ famous potatoes already provided a good example of what can be achieved by focusing on quality produce sup- ported by strong marketing campaigns abroad. Cyprus does not produce potatoes in the same quantities as the Netherlands, Greece or Turkey. It is their delicious taste and quality, as well as their early harvest, that make Cypriot potatoes one of the island’s most important agricultural export products. They get their winning flavour from the distinctive potassium-rich red soil where they are grown in villages in south-eastern Cyprus. Some 30% of potato exports are to the UK but they are popular across the rest of Europe. At the same time, the structural reforms resulting from those brain-storming sessions five years ago mean there is less cultivation of various types of citrus fruit. Exports of these were hit around a decade ago after the EU reduced tariffs on imports of citrus from third countries in the Mediterranean such as Morocco, Egypt and Turkey. Cyprus could not compete with these newcomers whose labour costs were far lower and could produce in much greater quantities.
Government incentives are in place for farmers to uproot citrus trees, which require a lot of irrigation and expensive pesticides, and to turn the land over to hardy crops such as prickly pears or pomegranates, which thrive in dry climates and rocky soils. Virtually all Cypriots, whether in a village or a city, have grown up with a prickly pear or pomegranate tree in their garden, with the vitamin-rich fruit used only for the family’s consumption. Now both are available in every supermarket, commanding good prices. Aloe vera, a hardy succulent, also holds much promise and is being cultivated mainly in the Pissouri area near Limassol by producers who have formed an association and use it to make beverages, skin lotions, cosmetics and ointments for minor burns and sunburn. Farmers dedicated to citrus are also being encouraged to shift to varieties that are per- forming well in export markets, such as the tango orange and lemons. Grafting new varieties onto existing trees is a simple task that Cypriot farmers know well. The traditional markets for Cypriot citrus products have been Russia and the UK, both enthusiastic consumers of oranges, tangerines and mandora, a cross between a mandarin and an orange.
Innovation has also helped to revitalise traditional minor crops, or ones that were set aside by the advent of high-input and intensity crop- ping systems. For instance, a current joint effort spearheaded by the University of Cyprus (UCY), the Agricultural Research Institute (ARI) and the Central Chemistry Laboratory, is characterising and screening the indigenous carob genetic resources and developing food, beverages and medicinal products of high added value. Once dubbed ‘black gold’, but gradually abandoned over the decades, carobs are making a spectacular comeback. Under the UCY project, 6,000 carob trees were planted in November 2017, with another 34,000 to follow on land leased from the forestry department in Orites, Paphos, for what will be the island’s biggest organic carob plantation.
Investing in Agriculture
Significant investment is helping to overhaul the agricultural sector, with a rural development programme co-funded by the EU and Cyprus, 52% and 48% respectively. More than €485 million is expected through Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) between 2014 and 2020, with further funds for modernisation and development under the new CAP from 2021 to 2027. The programme is open to all sectors for investment in the primary and secondary sectors, including organic farming, training, promotion, agritourism and applying for Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) or Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status.
Agricultural exports to the EU constitute around 64.2%, while other European countries account for 16.7% and Asia 16.2%. Launched five years ago, Cyprus’ new agricultural policy is now bearing fruit – literally. The value of agricultural production plunged during the 2012-2014 economic crisis but picked up again in 2015 and grew by an impressive 12% over the next two years. In 2017, the value of agricultural production exceeded pre-crisis levels, reaching nearly €740 million, accounting for 2.1% of GDP compared to 1.8% in 2014. It is highly unlikely that agriculture will ever contribute as much as it did in the early 1960s, contributing 20% to the GDP, but its economic relevance is set to grow rapidly in coming years. Exports of halloumi alone have risen by 25% a year over the past six years, as the versatile cheese, once a well-kept secret among European foodies, is now available in supermarket fridges around the world.
The Big Cheese
Halloumi exports will receive a further boost when the cheese secures its PDO, which is expected in 2018. With producers predicting that exports will treble in value to €300 million by 2023, the government is investing €35 million to increase production of sheep and goat milk from which halloumi is traditionally made. When the PDO application was led in 2015, the European Commission gave Cyprus a 10-year adjustment period to ensure that the cheese contains more milk from these live- stock than from cows, whose milk is cheaper and more plentiful. The number of sheep and goats is to be increased by 35,000, boosting milk production from three to 14 million cubic litres a year by 2020. Grants of €20,000 are available under an EU programme for first-time farmers aged between 18 and 40 who raise these animals, attracting educated young people into an area with a bright future. Production of the famous white cheese is now also associated as much with laboratories as it is with a rustic lifestyle.
Badges of Quality
To promote the quality of Cyprus’ agricultural products, the government has also pushed in recent years to create further coveted PDOs and two other international quality logos that attest to specific traditions and qualities of food, agricultural products and wines. Like the PDO, the PGI denotes a specific link to a region’s product while the third logo, the Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG), highlights a traditional production process. There is growing interest to gain these unique badges of quality because they bring added value to any produce, especially as European consumers are prepared to pay more for well-sourced food and ingredients. Cyprus has five food products already registered as PDOs, and four products have PGIs, with more applications for both PDO or PGI certification in the pipeline. In the wine category Cyprus boasts the famous Commandaria, which is said to be the earliest known PDO in the world. In addition, Zivania and Ouzo are potent alcoholic beverages listed as PGI products since 2004.
Growing Aquaculture Sector
Aquaculture products are the third most important produce in Cyprus, in terms of export value. Marine fish production (mariculture) in open sea cage farms accounts for some 90% of the total sales value. Fast growth in this sector due to strong marketing at home and abroad is likely to attract further investment. The main cultured marine species are sea bream, sea bass and meagre, and there is one high-tech, land-based shrimp farm.
Some 65% of the total national production of marine species is exported to markets in Europe, the Middle East, the USA and Russia, with the rest consumed domestically. Rainbow trout is currently the only freshwater fish farmed commercially. The aquaculture sector represents about 75-80% of the total national fisheries production, both in terms of volume and value, and the total national aquaculture value for 2015 reached €39.2 million.
Farms as Tourist Attractions
Innovative farms are boosting revenue by opening to visitors keen for a family day out in the countryside. Children get to see how halloumi, wine or olive oil is made, the chance to pet and milk sheep and goats, ride ponies and donkeys and marvel at ostriches and peacocks. Most of these farms have restaurants offering meals using their fresh, home-grown organic produce, which is also available in on-site shops. One of the most intriguing of these shops is at the Golden Donkeys Farm in Skarinou, one of the biggest donkey farms in Europe. It sells bars of soap, liqueur, chocolate and cosmetics made from the animal’s milk, which is said to help people with asthma, eczema and psoriasis. These can be bought online anywhere in the world and are also exported to Russia and Hungary. Dairy scientists say donkey milk is the closest animal milk to the human variety and legend has it that the Egyptian queen Cleopatra bathed in it to preserve the beauty and youth of her skin. Pope Francis has said he thrived on donkey milk as a baby.
Cyprus ranks among one of the oldest wine-producing countries in the world, but it was the Soviet Union’s collapse that was instrumental in the launch of the country’s modern wine industry. Until then, Cyprus had swapped wine and grape pulp of indifferent quality in bulk to the USSR in return for Russian tractors. The barter deal died along with Russia’s communist system, forcing Cyprus to rapidly improve the quality of its wines so that they could compete in the European market. Taking inspiration from France and Italy, Cyprus turned to small wineries using grapes grown in their localities to produce quality wines. Many are now run by young entrepreneurial Cypriots from families that had once produced and traded in wine, and with solid training in viticulture and oenology from famous winemaking regions such as France, Italy and Australia.
The wine scene has developed dramatically in recent years, with now over 70 wineries growing vines in both the foothills and high-altitudes of the Troodos mountains and producing award-winning wines. Some wineries have also focused on preserving the heritage of indigenous Cypriot varieties and are developing exciting, complex and sought-after boutique vintages.
These developments, along with the establishment and promotional work of an association of 11 leading Cypriot wineries – branded the Ambassador Wineries through the Evoinos partnership programme – are definitely putting Cyprus’ wine territory on the map for international wine connoisseurs.
Showcasing the rich viticulture of the island, the Cyprus Tourism Organisation has also created a wine trail project, offering six different organised routes for wine lovers to tour the island’s wine-producing regions and wineries. The reputation of the annual Limassol Wine Festival, launched in 1961, has also spread beyond the country’s borders and attracts over 100,000 visitors every year to the city’s municipal gardens to discover the wine portfolios of both the smaller independent producers and the four big wine cooperatives – KEO, SODAP, ETKO and LOEL.
Organic farming has shown steady growth in Cyprus. From 45 organic farmers with 1,665ha of cultivated land in 2002, the country saw an increase to 1,032 farmers in 2016 with 5,550ha, constituting around 4.9% of total cultivated agricultural land. This is an impressive development for a small country when compared to its larger fellow EU member states, where the total organic cultivated land is around 6.69%. Also, retail shops selling fresh and local organic products have increased significantly. Cyprus also provides various financing opportunities to farmers through the 2014-2020 Rural Development Programme to stimulate the development of the sector, ranging from support in the conversion from conventional farming to organic, for investments into quality systems and practices, promotional aid, cooperation with the food industry to create short supply chains, and helping young farmers to get started.
Opportunities and Challenges
Agriculture in Cyprus is rapidly diversifying and modernising, with greater input from scientists and researchers. is, together with the successful experience of those who have put money into boutique wineries, aquaculture or cultivating plants that produce fruit that is either nutritious or has medicinal properties, will attract further investment. Demand for such products in niche domestic and export markets is steadily rising because of the increased interest in well-sourced, nutritious food and the growth of European vegetarian and vegan communities. Most of these fashionable foods come from hardy plants that thrive in Cyprus’ dry and hot climate and wider cultivation of such crops will help to address the challenge of water scarcity, a pressing problem over the centuries. As it is, farmers have enjoyed greater water security in recent years thanks to the latest desalination and recycling technology. Also, many of these crops do not require large land holdings, which again suits Cyprus where 89.9% of holdings are under five acres and most farms are owned and run by individual families. New trends in farming methods and produce are helping to address another challenge that Cypriot agriculture has long faced – the ever-increasing average age of farmers. Younger educated people are now entering what is seen as a cutting-edge sector and many also have the marketing skills to make their agribusiness a success. Another interesting initiative is a recent plan by the Health Ministry to introduce legislation for the cultivation and trade of medical cannabis. Apart from the benefits it would bring patients – a number-one priority – it would also bring a boost to the economic development of the island, as well as attract significant foreign investment for the entire production chain.
A Fertile Future
After a long period in decline, agriculture in Cyprus is again blossoming as resilient and resourceful farmers, with government support, respond to fast-changing trends in European tastes for healthy, nutritious foods. As fresh as the produce, is the new blood coming into the sector, and with it, innovative thinking to boost sustainable farming using environmentally-friendly methods. Aware they can no longer compete with bigger Mediterranean countries in terms of quantity, Cypriot farmers are now focused on investing in quality and innovation, as well as the skilful marketing of more PDO and PGI products – which are areas where Cyprus has a winning hand.
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