Nikos Chatziandreou, founder of Organic Islands talks to Biomagazine and shares his experience and fears for aromatic plants.
We have known Nikos since his first attempts in aromatic plants because he trusted us with the plant production he installed in his first farms in Naxos. It has been several years since then and together we have managed many things we are proud of. Nikos is a role model because he always listens carefully, he works methodically and he is always ready to innovate. Let’s see what he has got to say. Enjoy!
Nikos Chatziandreou holds a BA in International Policy and Administration from Staffordshire University (UK) and an MA in Diplomatic Studies from University of Westminster (UK). He worked as a consultant for two of the greatest multinational consulting firms (2000-2008). He served as Counsellor to the Mayor of Naxos (2008-2010). He was the South Aegean Region Main Rapporteur of seminars on cultivation of aromatic plants (2013). He has taken part in a number of articles and he has granted several interviews for the cultivation of aromatic plants. He is the legal representative of the company and responsible for the technical details of its activities (cultivation-processing).
Good afternoon Nikos. When did you start and why did you make the decision to become an aromatic and medicinal plants farmer?
In 2009, (a year after my family moved to Naxos) while I was working as Counsellor to the Mayor, following pretty much the same career path, I decided to turn my hand to something entirely different: soil. The idea crossed my mind back then for two main reasons. On the one hand, I wanted to do something productive with development prospects that would put part of my family estate on the island to some good use. On the other hand, looking at how agricultural products were grown, I figured out I had to help as much as I could in getting across the idea of organic farming, almost unknown to Naxos till then, in order to change the standard practise. So, I started with what I knew best: reading. After several months of research, many trips and conversations I ended up in aromatic plants as the most suitable to crop and get involved in professionally. There have been many reasons for making that choice. Aromatic plants take full advantage of climate and soil conditions of the island and the commercial prospects they offer are significant, in Greece and beyond its borders. Eventually, we set off in October 2010 with our first plants and we still carry on.
Nikos in his thyme organic farm, in his farm house in Sagri village, Naxos.
Can you highlight the biggest problems you faced?
When you first start dealing with something you barely know, what you need the most, besides money, is reliable information and know-how, things you inevitably have to look for in people who specialise in all that. Sadly, information was limited and scattered back then and there weren’t many people you could turn to for directions. Especially in my case, wanting a company with a vertically integrated production (cultivation-processing), things were even more complicated. As a result, we had to learn through trial and error, something that held us back in terms of time and money. Besides the above and being in the eye of the financial storm when we started, we pretty much have to face what other small companies in our country do during this period of time. We had to deal with bureaucracy even from square one; we submitted a business plan to the Operational Programme ‘Rural Development of Greece’ that took two years to be evaluated and when that was finally approved we had to abandon the whole idea due to lack of funding, an issue we often face as banks offer no support whatsoever to companies such as ours.
The map of Naxos
You export to several countries. How hard is it for a Small and Medium-Sized Farm to be in the external market?
For a small farm it takes a lot of effort as well as time. On the other hand, though, it’s a process that can secure the sustainability and development prospects of such a company and subsequently, it’s worth the trouble and patience. An important factor in this process is again to find reliable partners that are experts on the special needs of each country we try to export to. For instance, there is no need to invest time and money in a market that imposes specific requirements that we can’t meet because e.g. we haven’t got suitable infrastructures. The timing we choose to make such a move is also very important. First we need to secure that we can meet the quality and quantity demands of that market, because if we can’t meet those as well as the deadlines, we run the risk of irreparably damaging our credibility and slamming a market's door shut that might be too hard to reopen.
What do global buyers think of the aromatic and medicinal plants of our country?
Global buyers are fully aware of the fact that Greek products of aromatic plants are superior in quality compared to most products in global market that mainly come from third countries. However, origin is not enough to secure quality and obviously all stages of production (cultivation-processing-packaging) lead to the finest result. So, if all the above conditions are true, global buyers won’t only prefer them but they'll also be prepared to pay more for them.
Can the Greek market absorb quality agricultural products?
We know very well that the financial crisis has put enormous pressure on the Greek market and it’s hard to absorb quality agricultural, as well as other, products due to its limited consumers’ purchasing power. The good news though is that there’s been a shift towards Greek products lately, which are superior in quality compared to imported ones, and in some case cheaper as well. A main feature of the Greek market which is also a great advantage for quality Greek products is that it’s not solely addressed to local consumers. Greek companies are capable of encouraging what I’d like to call ‘exports within the territory of the country’. We should actively promote Greek products to millions of tourists-consumers that visit our country every year and stop this ridiculous habit of feeding our visitors with products we've imported from countries they come from. If we turn this trend around altogether I'm absolutely sure that quality agricultural products we produce won’t be enough to cover the needs of Greek tourist market.
Why organic farming?
Organic farming isn’t a fad but a need. A need to protect the environment we live in and pass it on to the next generation. A need to protect ourselves and others around us. As in many other pitfalls of human nature, the problem lies first of all in lack of education and secondly in the pursuit of convenience. Thousands of new farmers have been brainwashed that using chemicals (pesticides, herbicides etc) is the only way to production, totally ignoring at the same time the side effects even on themselves. What is more, the convenience provided by those farming practices, especially with regards to reduction of labour cost, makes them even more attractive. Growing awareness of chemical side effects on humans and the environment as well as providing education about organic farming practices can turn the tables. Existing organic farmers have a key role to play as they have to show by examples that there are alternative ways. If someone especially wants to turn their hand to organic farming, then (most species of) aromatic plants are the most suitable to do so, as they are seldom prone to pests/diseases and need much less protection compared to other cultivations (e.g. horticulture). What I'm trying to say is that if somebody like me, who had no idea whatsoever about farming, managed to deal with organic farming, anyone could.
Can you share a special moment, a moment you felt that it’s really worth it?
There’ve been so many in all those years I've been dealing with aromatic plants (first planting, first harvest, first publication, first export, etc) that made me feel it’s worth it that it’s really hard to pick one. So, my guesses are that this very special moment hasn’t come yet and I'm looking forward to it.
Organic Islands® is a fast growing family business that produces and processes organic aromatic and medicinal plants and herbs, based in the island on Naxos in Cyclades. The company was established and operating as in 2010. At the same time, we started our first production of Balm (Melissa Officinalis) in our farms in Sagri, a small village in the mainland approximately 15 Km from the city of Naxos. The following year we added new aromatic and medicinal plants and by the end of 2012 we cultivated 8 different species:
· Lavandula Angustifolia, Lavender
· Melissa Officinalis, Balm
· Hyssopus Officinalis, Hyssop
· Salvia Officinalis, Sage
· Thymus Vulgaris, Thyme
· Mentha Pulegium, Pennyroyal
· Origanum Vulgare, Oregano
· Rosmarinus Officinalis, Rosemary
In 2010 our carefully arranged plants occupied an area of 12,000 m², in 2013 it extended to 30,000 m² and our target until the end of 2015 is to reach 100,000 m². It is the first company in Cyclades (and still the only one) to cultivate certified organic aromatic and medicinal plants. The climate and composition of the soil in the island of Naxos are ideal for such cultivations. Lack of water, blazing sunlight as well as the traditional farming techniques lead to a high quality product, rich in essential oils that give this unique flavour and fragrance.
The vision of Organic Islands is in line with the very essence of the name it bears: spread of organic farming practices and co-operation of all islands of Cyclades in the production of high quality products based on herbs. We strongly believe that working together for high quality, certified organic products, we can reach high potential, in the local-tourist as well as the international market, something that can significantly contribute to the strengthening of the local economy of our islands.
The need to develop organic farming and spread its values is what we passionately believe in and we try to pass it on to other farmers in the wider region of Cyclades so that they can adopt them. This perfect marriage of tradition and technology is the secret to protect the environment and produce healthy organic products of high standards, rich in fragrance and flavours.
For more information:
Tel.no: 22850 23110, 210 8130296
Location: Sagri-Naxos (Cyclades)
P.C: 84 300