STERNA, Greece — Facing a nearly impossible job search and rising costs in the city, Margianna Xirogianni quit the rat race and moved here, a tiny village 80 miles southwest of Athens.
Xirogianni, three of her siblings and other partners set up Green Land, a cooperative farming business that produces and exports extra-virgin olive oil, olive paste and other olive-based products around the world.
They’re not alone. Like American Millennials who leave Manhattan for New York’s Hudson Valley or abandon Los Angeles for the California desert towns near Palm Springs, young Greeks are increasingly trading in their urban careers and lifestyles for the countryside.
Yet Xirogianni’s move stemmed from a desperation that most American young adults wouldn't recognize.
During the decade since the worldwide financial crisis, Greece's economy has been contracting. Youth employment stands at more than 40%, the highest in the European Union.
“I finished my master's and had to work as a tutor, a waitress and a clown at kids' parties because nowadays no hospital hires staff,” said Xirogianni, 33, who used to dream of helping cancer patients with her degree in medical physics. “That's when it came to me: ‘We should start something of our own.’ ”
The situation in Greece is not likely to change soon. Growth will remain sluggish as the country repays loans under a bailout financed by eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund.
“In the countryside, we're self-sufficient,” said Xirogianni’s sister, Ioulia, 34, who moved to Sterna from Athens with her husband and two children. “We wanted a better quality of life where we'd get a decent pay. In crisis-hit Athens, the salaries are too small to make ends meet, especially if you have children.”
The situation was similar for Petros Giannakopoulos, 24. After holding several jobs in cafeterias, supermarkets and beach bars in Patras, the third-largest city in Greece, he returned to Agia Mavra, a village with 300 residents where he grew up in western Greece.
With no prior experience in farming, he and his family now own 200 sheep and sell milk and meat.
“Nowadays in Greece, you spend years studying, and then you frame your degree and put it on the wall. But the only thing you can do with it is look at it, because you just can't get a job,” he said.
He hopes to create a modern stable with milking machines, buy more land and a tractor and adopt such innovations as GPS tracking devices on his animals. He also wants to invest in an olive grove and an aloe vera farm next year.
The government had seen a bump in the number of Greeks working in agriculture in the past decade, up to 13% from 11%, said Charalambos Kasimis, secretary-general for policy at the Greek Ministry of Rural Development and Food. Much of that increase was from a spike in farmers under age 40, he added.
Rural regions might not be able to handle an influx of newcomers. “Farmers need social infrastructure, schools for their kids, local doctors, banks and so on,” said Kasimis, who is also a professor at the Agricultural University of Athens.
The trend is still a welcome one, because Greek agriculture needs to change to remain competitive on the world market, he said.
For decades, Greece has exported agricultural products such as olives and olive oil in bulk to other European countries that rebrand it under their own labels and re-export it. As a result, Italian and Spanish companies dominate the olive-oil industry.
“We need to increase the added value in our products, build on our quality branding and agritourism,” Kasimis said.
European Union policies that give farmers subsidies have also undermined the long-term competitiveness of Greek agriculture, said Thodoris Vasilopoulos, president of the Young Farmer Association in Greece.
“The older generation learned to depend on subsidies and often didn't even bother to farm its land,” Vasilopoulos said. “Right now, subsidies are even given to retired farmers, like my 80-year-old grandfather. Only if we support farmers will we see Greece's GDP grow.”
The Xirogianni siblings say they are now thankful for the economic crisis. If Greece hadn't tumbled into hard times, they might not have taken the step to become farmers.
“We've even started expanding to agritourism,” Margianna Xirogianni said as she pushed harvested olives into a large sack. “Tourists can visit our farm and our home in order to see how olive oil is produced.”