By COSTAS KANTOURIS, Associated Press
KATERINI, Greece (AP) — Hammered by the financial crisis that has led to ever diminishing income, a group of residents in northern Greece have joined forces with potato farmers to slash consumer prices and ensure producers can get their crop to markets by cutting out the middle man.
Hundreds of families turned up Saturday in this northern Greek town to buy potatoes at massively reduced prices, sold directly by producers at cost price. They lined up in cars and with bicycles, on foot and with scooters to collect their bags of spuds from a truck that flung its doors wide open and was doing a roaring trade in the parking lot of a local courthouse.
Farmers say it costs about 20 cents ($0.27) to produce a kilogram (2 pounds) of potatoes, but that wholesalers will only buy them for 10-12 cents to get the crop to supermarkets, where they sell for about 60-70 cents a kilogram. Faced with making a loss, many producers say they have been unable to even get their products to the market.
Greece's severe financial crisis, now entering its third year, has seen pensions and salaries slashed and led to skyrocketing unemployment of over 20 percent. More and more people have been turning up at soup kitchens run by the church or local aid groups, and homelessness has been increasing.
Faced with an ever deepening recession, some local groups have begun coming up with novel ways to beat the financial crunch.
Ilias Tsolakidis, 54, part of a volunteer group in northern Greece, said he contacted a potato farmer in northern Greece last week and posted an advertisement on the internet offering consumers the chance to order directly from the producer at cost price. He was overwhelmed by the response: by Wednesday, all 24 tons of potatoes on offer had been sold, with 534 families putting in orders.
His motive, Tsolakidis said, was "to cover a financial gap in the family budget. You know, the situation in the financial crisis has become very difficult. We help producers (from the local area) on the one hand, and also the families of consumers."
Kiki Pantelopoulou couldn't agree more.
"I didn't only do this because it's in my interest," said the 42-year-old as she loaded a sack of potatoes onto her bicycle. "My main concern is how to stop this situation. This way, we favor Greek products and therefore producers can at least make the cost price."
Tsolakidis said that with demand so high, his group of volunteers would set up another sale next weekend, buying another 24 tons of potatoes from a different farmer this time.
Konstantinos Karanikos, 67, said his son helped him order sacks of potatoes from Saturday's sale over the internet, but could only secure half the amount he wanted because the demand was so high. "We will order again next weekend," he said. "The important thing is for the producer to be satisfied and the consumer to have cheap potatoes."
With the crop being sold at cost price of 20 cents a kilogram, Lefteris Kostopoulos, the farmer who put his spuds up for sale Saturday, didn't make any profit on the transaction. But, he said, at least he managed to break even and sell more than half of the produce he had stored up in a warehouse.
"This group's move was very good. It helped us shift the amounts we had in the warehouses, and we didn't give them to the wholesalers who are asking for 10-12 cents per kilo," he said. "We might not make money here, because we're essentially breaking even, but at least we aren't making a loss."
Kalypso Skouba, 44, said she hoped the new movement spread to other products soon, so she could buy more vegetables or fruit directly from producers.
"I bought potatoes today just to show that it can't only be the middlemen who make money," she said.