If you think Greece is all about beautiful beach resorts, archaeological sites and crowded swimming pools, it is probably because you haven't heard of the Red Tractor Farm...
Situated on the pristine island of Kea, only two hours trip from the busy centre of Athens, this unique agricultural project offers the best possibility to get to know pure Greek life and tradition. Surrounded by an olive oil grove and very close to the port of the island, the Red Tractor Farm not only offers really traditional rooms to stay but it has also developed a strong volunteer program.
Volunteers from around the world come to Kea to pick up olives, deal with house cleaning, learn how to make wine, to cultivate organic vegetables and generally to deal with all kinds of agricultural work. In exchange for their work, volunteers get free accommodation and food.
Marcie Mayer talked to us about this special Farm, how they opened it with her husband, Kostis Maroulis, and how they managed to create such a successful agricultural project.
Mrs Mayer, could you tell me how the Red Tractor Farm started?
In 2006, we received a grant through the Agrotourism Leader+ Program for sustainable rural development on the Cycladic islands. We began building our guesthouse in November 2006 and opened for our first guests in June 2008.
Why did you give the name "Red Tractor" to your farm?
Along with the property, my husband Kostis inherited a 1947 International red tractor that was given to Kea by the US government through the Marshall Plan for Reconstruction following World War II. This red tractor is still working beautifully and we even loan her out from time to time to our friends and neighbors at harvest time.
Where are you exactly located on the island?
Our small farm consists of 30 stemmata (8 acres) tucked in a valley on one side of the port town of Korissia. We have one of the last large undeveloped properties so close to the port. Kostis' grandmother planted many tall poplar trees creating a park like environment completely screened from the beach front road. We have an olive grove of about a 150 trees and a small vineyard that produces 300 bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon on a good year. Above the vineyard is a large organic vegetable garden although we are far from being self reliant. A 5 stremma field is now being sown and prepared for our new vineyard of 1000 vines that will be of heirloom Cycladic varieties. This vineyard should produce 2,500 bottles annually from 2012.
What about your rooms?
Our guesthouse was designed with comfort, practicality and a clean aesthetic always in mind. There are 4 separate houses, each able to accommodate 4 - 6 people. Houses can also be split into 2 separate levels - larger studios on top level and double rooms below bordering the olive grove. When separated, each level has its own entrance and interior stairways are locked. The entire guesthouse is surrounded by extensive gardens featuring indigenes plants collected from the entire Mediterranean region. Many plants, including a large variety of old roses, were chosen for their aromatic characteristics. Each double room on the olive grove level has a private veranda surrounded by wonderful scents. Each Studio has a private garden with shady built in seating area for eating and lounging.
Tell me a few words about the seminars you organize and your volunteer programs.
We regularly host volunteers from around the world from September - March. Volunteers receive accommodation and meals in exchange for 5-6 hours of outdoor work per day. Jobs include pruning trees, weed whacking, vineyard maintenance, gardening, painting, harvesting and even marmalade making. We host volunteers through the WWOOF.org and Helpx.net programs which put interested volunteers in touch with us. We have over 1,000 volunteer inquiries per year for the 10 - 15 spots available.
We have cooperated with many different individuals and organizations that have used our guesthouse as part of their seminars. Colour therapy, weaving, writing and mountain bike clubs have run programs and seminars at the Red Tractor Farm. We are able to offer walking tours to Karthea with a strong emphasis on botany and archeology at the ancient temples. Kostis also takes up to 5 people at one time out on his traditional wooden boat Soultana. Boat trips can be to deserted beaches, Karthea or all the way around the island.
How did you get the idea to create such a farm on Kea island specifically? What were your connections to the island?
Well, Kostis' great grandfather and grandfather were born on Kea. After studying and living extensively in Europe and the US, he decided to return to and develop the remaining property.
Can you describe Kea as you see it? How is it in winter, when tourists go away? Do you think the island can develop agrotourism?
Summer weekends are increasingly more crowded but the island is still very quiet midweek with the exception of July and August. Even during the height of the summer season, the islanders away from Korissia, Voulkari and Koundouros are relatively oblivious to the onslaught of weekend home owners and zodiac enthusiasts.
There is ample room for the development of many agrotourism projects on Kea for anyone interested in living year round on the island. Sadly, most of the hotel and rooms for rent owners on Kea do not maintain a permanent residence on Kea and only stay for the tourist season. This is unfortunate as the community and island suffer as a result of key entrepreneurs' lack of interest in Kea as anything other than a means to make money.
We love our island during the winter months. One has time for reading, cooking, knitting, walking and so many other pastimes that get brushed aside for the beach and swimming during the summer months. The autumn and winter are our busiest time outdoors maintaining and developing our property. Cutting, stacking and burning old wood have kept us very busy during the last few winters.
Do you receive mostly foreigners or Greek tourists? How do foreigners react to agricultural works?
We work with about 90% foreigners, mostly European, year round. Non Greeks that have chosen to stay with us are usually already familiar with the mindset behind what we are doing here on our little farm. They completely understand and enjoy that everything needed for a comfortable stay is provided whilst some things, like TVs, have purposely been left out.
Our guests often choose Kea for the extensive network of well maintained walking paths to be found traversing the entire island. Most of our winter guests spend a week to 10 days enthusiastically exploring these paths. Our Greek guests generally react very positively to the agricultural work we're involved with. We've created a quiet little haven just 2 hours journey from the city center which surprises and delights tired Athenians.