Editor’s Note: A grant of $27.5 million by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) was awarded to the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences to develop a comprehensive, interdisciplinary project to create job opportunities for youth in the agriculture and food sector in Greece alongside the Agricultural University of Athens and the American Farm School. The funding for this project, called New Agriculture for a New Generation, is part of a €100 million (euro) investment by SNF in one of the pillars of its broader initiative, Recharging the Youth. This story first appeared in the spring 2019 edition of Rutgers Magazine.
It was 2013, and Robert Goodman was thinking about his grandfather. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) had just approached Rutgers for help with a complex, perhaps unprecedented initiative designed to address a looming threat to the Greek economy: the entrenched problem of youth unemployment. SNF, one of the world’s leading private philanthropic organizations, was proposing an innovative approach that would draw on Greek agriculture—at that time the only sector of the country’s economy that was growing—to create opportunities for the 60 percent of young people of working age who were unable to find work.
For Goodman, the executive dean of the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences (SEBS), it was one of those moments when everything seems to align in the most propitious of ways. In a meeting with representatives of SNF, it quickly became apparent, he says, “that everything they were looking for—youth engagement, business incubators, enterprise development, education extension, mentoring, technology—we do here at Rutgers.”
The initiative had personal resonance for Goodman as well. Some 70 years earlier, his grandfather, a professor of agricultural engineering at Cornell and Goodman’s personal hero, traveled to the Philippines, under the auspices of the Ford Foundation, to help rebuild the country’s agricultural industry after the devastation of World War II. Now, Goodman was being asked to do something very similar, this time in a country ravaged by the worldwide recession of 2008.
In both cases, agriculture was key. From 2008 through 2013, virtually every sector of Greece’s economy—including manufacturing, retail, construction, and tourism— contracted. The only exception was agricultural production, which actually grew by 10 percent. “It’s second from the top in revenue and employability,” says Eva Polyzogopoulou, co-deputy chief programs officer at SNF.
Against that backdrop, the foundation invited Rutgers to join forces with two Greek educational institutions, the Agricultural University of Athens (AUA) and the American Farm School (AFS), to collaborate on the initiative known today as New Agriculture for a New Generation (NeAGen). Supported by a $27.5 million gift from SNF, NeAGen began training its first group of young farmers, agribusiness innovators, and agricultural entrepreneurs in February 2018.
The program, which is currently focusing on northern and central Greece, is part of SNF’s larger initiative known as Recharging the Youth, whose long-term goal is to help create meaningful employment opportunities for thousands of unemployed young people. The need for it is urgent: although Greece’s youth unemployment rate has fallen from its 2013 high of 60 percent, it is still the highest in the European Union (EU), at just under 40 percent. Greece, though, has its share of educated young people.
“Many have bachelor’s and master’s degrees,” says Effie Lazaridou, managing director of the initiative in Greece. Part of the genius of NeAGen is its focus on the interests, aptitudes, and—most significantly—the training of the young people whom it seeks to aid. It doesn’t look to fit job-seekers into available positions but rather to find, or create, positions that fit job-seekers. In addition to traditional agriculture, points of entry include animal science, food and nutrition, food processing, import/export, marketing, and social media.
To help pair these young job-seekers with engaging and potentially lucrative careers, the initiative conducted a series of studies in its first year to determine which of 16 agricultural sectors—from agritourism and aquaculture to olive oil and Greek wine and spirits—would most likely offer ample employment opportunities. The studies may well prove critical to the initiative’s success. Polyzogopoulou notes that Greece had received funds from the EU to conduct similar trainings that could have been more successful. “Our challenge,” she says, “was to offer something helpful and new to the market, and I think we have achieved that to a large extent, possibly because of the studies.”
Conducting the studies was an exhaustive process that involved the work of 150 researchers, faculty, and staff, who interviewed, surveyed, and met with some 1,200 companies and individuals in Greece as well as in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Russia. Bolstered by information gleaned from these studies, the first workshops were rolled out in livestock farming and dairy technology, sheep and goat farming, alternative tourism (including agritourism), the sustainable production of legumes, apiculture (beekeeping), and medicinal and aromatic plants. The last two categories have proven to be especially popular, with four times more applicants than the project can currently accommodate. “Thus far, participants in the initiative,” says Lazaridou, “have been very enthusiastic. They’re surprised that they can receive such high-quality training for free—it’s like receiving a scholarship.”
In addition to running the workshops, the initiative recently launched a small experimental farm and training center operated by AUA that’s expected to accommodate more than 180 young people. Plans are also in place for an extension and advisory service in the Greek public sector and for a summer school designed to introduce high school students to Greek agribusiness, getting them into the pipeline at a time when they’re just starting to think about career options. This year, the initiative kicked off “Training the Trainers,” a workshop devised to create a cadre of mentors. And in July, in collaboration with a group of Greek businesses and educational institutions, NeAGen will cosponsor an agri- and food-tech challenge for start-ups, from which four finalists will receive financial support, mentoring, and access to international competitions.
In fact, entrepreneurship is an essential part of the initiative. Among several new programs aimed at young people looking to start their own businesses is a series of events, to be held in towns throughout Greece, that will offer information about agrifood entrepreneurship. The workshops are designed to help both job-seekers looking for work in an established business and potential entrepreneurs hoping to establish a business of their own. Through the workshop in alternative tourism, for instance, Gerassimos Mazarakis and Stavros Papadopoulos were inspired and equipped to found a company they call Our Way, which offers excursions to Chortiatis, the mountain town that’s home to the center of the Scouts of Greece, where both men spent so much of their youth and which continues to be a favorite getaway. Their first excursion was a hiking trip following the path of the ice makers—locals who made and sold ice before the advent of modern refrigeration. “We’ve been organizing trips here for many years,” says Mazarakis. “In essence, we’re turning our hobby into a profession.”
Over the course of its first three years, the program aims to recruit between 2,000 and 2,500 young people between the ages of 16 and 35 and train them for jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities in the agricultural industry. AUA and AFS are handling much of the recruitment, through their own networks, through Greek agricultural associations, and through social media, which is a particularly strong force in Greece. Lazaridou and her team are collaborating with them in the effort. “They’re helping to ensure that the project is visible in Greece outside of the academic context, in conferences, workshops, and entrepreneurial events,” says Lia Papathomas, Rutgers’ director of operations for the initiative.
A serious initial challenge for the Rutgers contingent was finding a way to work alongside their two Greek partner institutions without seeming to take the reins. “We’ve tried to work gently and avoid transmitting anything that could be taken by our partners as arrogance,” says Goodman. He hopes that, over time—in seven or eight years, perhaps—the project will be handed over entirely to Greek control, and to that end, he’s helping to create a new nonprofit that will eventually supersede NeAGen.
An added challenge was how to connect with EU leadership at a sufficiently high level in order to seek common opportunities and explore the possibility of securing EU funding for the initiative. The solution arrived through a confluence of apparently chance encounters that reflect Rutgers’ global reach, beginning with a conversation at a meeting of the Rutgers Equine Science Center’s advisory board between Melissa McKillip, who is vice dean for advancement at SEBS, and attorney Rodman Law, a member of the board. McKillip told Law about the Greek initiative. Not long after, Law reached out to Goodman to let him know that a contact of his in Ireland’s equine industry, Arthur French, was a close friend of Phil Hogan, the EU’s commissioner for agriculture and rural development. A month later, in July 2018, Goodman met with Hogan, who, it turned out, was in the process of revising the EU’s common agricultural policy along lines that were strikingly similar to what NeAGen was proposing for Greece. In December 2018, Hogan met with SNF to discuss the initiative. “Within a short amount of time,” says Goodman, “we’d gotten the EU’s attention.”
Another Rutgers connection came to light in a recent effort to expand the program into additional agrifood subsectors, most notably Greek agrifood logistics—the movement of the country’s agricultural products within and outside of Greece. The Thessaloniki Port Authority was privatized in 2018, and its new CEO and board chair, Sotirios Theofanis, is an affiliate at the Rutgers Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation (CAIT), which is partnering with the port authority to conduct a study to determine how logistics might become a viable part of NeAGen. “This accomplishes a goal of mine, which is to engage other parts of Rutgers,” says Goodman.
That goal is well on its way toward being met. “The university,” says Papathomas RC’05, “has shown its commitment, engagement, and enthusiasm for this program. We have had involvement from legal to administrative to our researchers and scientists. This has been an effort on all fronts.”
One important front is Rutgers’ Greek community. Greek expatriates are well represented in the university’s faculty and staff, in fields as diverse as classics, history, computer engineering, and the sciences. Many—among them Papathomas, whose parents emigrated from Greece to pursue an education—have been involved in the early phases of the initiative, and more are expected to come on board as it progresses. “The resonance of Rutgers being funded to work in a big way in Greece, beyond the specific focus of the project, means an enormous amount to us,” says Goodman.
Like his grandfather before him, Goodman is concerned, first and foremost, with the good he can do—or, more properly, the good that can be done through the vast resources of Rutgers University–New Brunswick and SNF—for a country burdened with a damaged economy. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the benefits of the initiative flow two ways. For one thing, notes Goodman, it offers an important chance to further integrate the Greek community that surrounds Rutgers–New Brunswick into the university’s family. And it will surely help to strengthen Rutgers’ global influence—one of Goodman’s aims when he became executive dean of SEBS more than a dozen years ago. There have been many strides toward that goal in the intervening years, but NeAGen, he says, represents “a vast opportunity that could develop into many more pathways of international engagement than we currently have.”
As the initiative has expanded into a variety of new subsectors, agriculture has remained its essential focus, a fact that has cultural and historical significance for Greece. Since the days of the ancient city-states, agriculture has remained essential to the Greek economy. “There’s a very deep culture and a long, long history, going back to mythology, of the centrality of food and agriculture in Greece,” notes Goodman. It seems fitting—and it’s certainly the hope of all involved in the initiative—that agriculture may well be the pivotal force for economic renewal in a country that has long revered it.