The future of vineyards in Crete

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Sultana production in Heraklion

Sultana production in Heraklion reached 120,000 tons in the 1960s, providing a living for tens of thousands of farmers in Crete. Everybody knows that, until 15 years ago, income from sultanas “built” most people’s houses and cooperative storerooms in large sultana-producing villages, created householders, sustained many generations and paid for the studies of many future important scientists from farming families. Money from selling sultanas boosted the economy of the city of Heraklion, supported the shops of market villages in vineyard areas, drove the economy of the primary sector and filled the pockets of individual agriculturalists, vineyard planters and farm machinery companies.

The cycle has now come to an end. The sultana that charmed the grape-farming world of Crete at the beginning of the last century is no more… Today’s sultana-growers, people born and raised in the vineyards, are abandoning them. Cretan viticulture is turning over a new leaf whose text is unknown, as there have been no guidelines or even attempts to determine farmers’ intentions. We all hope, however, that the future will be better than the past…

This year, sultana production in Heraklion Prefecture will not exceed 1,500 tons. Cretan viticulture has been destroyed. What was the key to catastrophe?

The “entry price” of dried sultanas on the European market. Initially there was a cap on the import price from third countries, mainly Turkey and Iran, to EU countries. Based on regulations, this minimum price fell by 5% each year until it was finally abolished. This meant the Greek sultanas, with their high production costs and comparatively high labour costs, were competing on the European market with mainly Turkish sultanas, which have government subsidies in the commercial sector and wages just over the cost of a meal.

Cretan sultana-growers found themselves selling their produce at rock-bottom prices until they were thrown the lifeline of income support based on acreage. Unfortunately, the acreage support money was often claimed by tricksters who used fake invoices to get rich quick. However, these dodgy dealings led to their downfall – under the new regulations, they will no longer make money from this trade. They may complain, but they have already made a fortune… At the same time, the sultana-processing sector is paralysed and many factory workers stand to lose their jobs. All their attempts to find a solution have so far failed.

Crete’s vineyards – The future

Under these conditions of intense competition from third countries, low prices and fake invoices, it has been very difficult for farmers to invest in quality, certified sultana production. Some growers have done so successfully, but most have failed. The Greek side (the state, public bodies, agricultural cooperatives) did not put up enough resistance to market globalisation, but even if it had, it would only have delayed the inevitable for a while.

People whose main profession is not farming, but who grew sultana vines for the acreage support, are taking the easy way out and planting olive trees instead. Others, mainly farmers, are moving into quality table grapes and wine varieties. Yet others will abandon sultana vines and exploit all three uses of sultana grapes: drying, vinification and table grapes. Some are considering growing vegetables, while others are talking about truffles and local plants. Stock farmers are begging for feed plants, now that fodder has become more expensive.

Tractors in the vineyards

Tractors and loaders have already moved into many vineyards. The woody vine stumps are piled up in the corners of the fields, to used as fuel in fireplaces and wood-burning stoves. More and more uprooted vineyards and deeply-ploughed fields, ready to receive new crops, are covering the landscape, despite agriculturalists’ recommendations to “wait and see until we get instructions from the government”. Soon the scene in large sultana-producing villages will be completely different.

After 90 years of dominating the Cretan countryside, sultana grapes are in decline. A historic period for the farming sector of the island is at an end. Sultanas will probably be replaced by quality grapes for wine, cereal crops and fodder plants once grown in the fertile soil of Crete.

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