Sustainable Greece inspiration to students

Ten students recently returned from a study abroad trip to Greece, where they studied sustainability and food production. They were: Thomas Clutter, business major; Johnna Guernsey, fish and wildlife major; Jace Kranau, natural resources and environmental
Ten students recently returned from a study abroad trip to Greece, where they studied sustainability and food production. They were: Thomas Clutter, business major; Johnna Guernsey, fish and wildlife major; Jace Kranau, natural resources and environmental

By Tom Clutter | UNL College of Business, Supply Chain Management major

On May 22, 10 University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Agriculture and Natural Resources students grabbed their bags, climbed on a plane and landed in Greece for two weeks for their chance to study sustainability abroad as part of the “Natural Resources Management: Sustainability, Environment and Culture” course.

The students from CASNR majors spanning Environmental Studies to Biological Systems Engineering were led by Tala Awada, faculty in the School of Natural Resources and associate dean in the Agricultural Research Division, and Sara Winn the School of Natural Resources academic advisor.

“Sara and I had a clear vision of what we wanted this experience to be about,” Awada said. “We wanted the students who were mostly from science-related disciplines to experience the Greek culture and help them appreciate and understand how the past is important in shaping our present as well as our thinking and behavior. Students got to learn about culture, mythology, archeology and religion and their linkages to science, agriculture, environment and sustainability.”

Students were immersed in the culture and exposed to novel agricultural experiences and ideas through food, wine and, of course, tours in the capital city of Athens and the islands of Santorini and Crete. Dr. Ioanna Kopsiafti, an Oxford graduate, managing director of Hellenic Byways IKE, and assistant professor at Hellenic American University, guided the archeological and cultural tours and shared the history, mythology and culture of Greece.

In Athens, a city of about 5 million (nearly half of Greece’s population), students could feel how closely connected the past is to the present through their visits to the Parthenon; Acropolis Museum; ancient Agora; Greek Orthodox churches; Monastiraki, one of the principal shopping districts; and Plaka, an old historical neighborhood filled with neoclassical architecture along labyrinth streets. In all locations, students could see a rich past entwined with the present.

In the capitol city, they also saw how important agriculture and food are to people’s lives and livelihoods. The hotel where they stayed was literally steps away from the central vegetable and meat market where the songs of vendors selling their wares would ring out each morning. Local produce such as olives and strawberries as well as freshly butchered meat such as lamb and pork filled vendor stalls. Students could buy affordable fresh fruits and vegetables to snack on throughout the day. The experience emphasized the Mediterranean lifestyle and culture, as well as, diet that is heavily focused on knowing your food and producer, a pure example of farm-to-table.

On the outskirts of the city, students got to visit Artemis Temple and the protected adjacent wetland, and eat and swim under Poseidon Temple. They also saw Grecian agriculture production: herds of sheep, vineyards, and pistachio, fig and olive trees thriving along the fertile, rural planes.

At the organic winery, Pappagiannakos, which has been family-owned for generations, students saw sustainability taken seriously. The lower level of the facility has garage-style doors and windows that can be opened to let in cooling sea winds. The building also utilizes natural elements in its lighting features. Here, students learned about quality wine through tasting, which is a way to determine not only characteristics of a wine, but also the environment in which it was produced, Pappagiannakos said. To maintain his vineyards, where some vines have been producing grapes for more than 200 years, Pappagiannakos uses only natural fertilizers and organic methods for pest control.

While in Athens, the students also toured the Agricultural University of Athens, where they visited the productive insect laboratories of silkworms and bees and learned about the role they play in the Greek economy. They also spent time chatting and visiting over coffee under the Acropolis with their Greek counterparts comparing educational systems and students’ lives.

Next stop was the island of Santorini, one of 3,000 islands in Greece, which was created through volcanic eruptions. The island had new geological learning opportunities for students. Its unique volcanic soil composition combined with its limited rainfall have created challenges for locals who have learned to integrate unique solutions into their production methods.

A winery and wine museum highlighted the unique agricultural methods, production processes and resource management required of the region to maintain the sustainability of the fragile island. The grape vines are coiled low to the ground, allowing the vine leaves to protect the grapes from the sun. This method also encourages the roots to grow deeper, drawing nutrients and minerals from the volcanic-rich soil. Students got the chance to taste and learn about the island wines especially the signature sweet wine “The Vinsanto” made from semi-sundried grapes.

“They studied the most efficient ways (to produce grapes) and made adjustments where they needed,” said Anna Rodriguez, animal science major.

The last stop on the trip was Crete, the land of the Minoans and the largest island and southernmost point of Greece. The island is unique in its history and richness with native Mediterranean herbs and medicinal plants. Students stayed at the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania; toured the botanical gardens and laboratories; and heard lectures from professors on sustainable agriculture on the island, the Mediterranean diet and local food production. They also explored urban, historical and natural areas, including the Samaria Gorge.

Samaria Gorge, part of the island’s national park, spans 11 miles from mountain peak to the Mediterranean Sea. Cold springs and a river run through it. The park is home to wild goats and many native species to the island and gave students a chance to become fully engrossed in a Cretan ecosystem. Along the trails, students noticed fire management stations as frequently as drinking water stations, reinforcing the fact that many of the plants there regenerate through fire. The students also enjoyed time at Gramvousa island and the beach of Balos, where they swam at the site of Akrotiri, where actor Anthony Quinn danced his famous “Zorbas” in the 1964 film “Zorba the Greek.”

The students later toured Boilea Olive Oil Estate to get a firsthand feel for sourcing and production. The company uses large traditional stones to cold press olives to produce oil; it is an old production method reintroduced at Boilea to optimize yields and resources. The proprietor said “most people still think it is crazy” to produce in this way, but the students learned that despite appearances, it is not an inefficient process; it is sustainable.

The message of “local and sustainable” was one reinforced by Yannis Apostolakis, chef at MAICh, during a cooking lesson at the institute with UNL students. Apostolakis focuses on sourcing and showcasing local, sustainable produce in his food.
“It’s an investment in your health and your family,” said the chef who is passionate about sharing the benefits of cooking with olive oil and the Mediterranean diet.

The chance for more local foods was available to the students on Chania, where they visited the fish and farmers markets. Everything from eggplant to octopus and fresh snails were for sale. The present practice of walking to the markets to shop, socialize and think is similar to what Greek ancestors and philosophers did thousands of years ago in city centers. The markets are evidence of that tradition and culture, which runs deep.

The students didn’t say goodbye to the Greece without picking up a little of that tradition. ON their final night on the island, the students said participated in Greek night, where they learned traditional dances and how to dance the Zorbas.

“Watching all 10 of our students mature and grow while getting to know them on a personal level was to me, the most rewarding part of our journey,” Winn said. “For many of them, this was their first time outside of the United States, so watching them soak in the experience while reflecting on the impact was so enjoyable. It was exciting and rewarding to be a part of something that has shaped these students lives forever.”

Want more?
Find more photos from the trip on the group's Facebook page,

More details at: