“We, as farmers, are part of an ecosystem”

Sheila Darmos, The Southern Lights (Skala, Greece)

35 years ago, Stavros Darmos decided to convert his farm in the south of the Peleponnese peninsula to organic practices. He was the first in Greece to make this transition. Today, the next generation took over the farm and decided to take it one step further. Women in Ag talked to Sheila Darmos, co-founder of The Southern Lights.

After studies abroad and obtaining a degree in sociology in Germany, Sheila Darmos came back to her native Greece unexpectedly to help take care of her father, Stavros. Discovering she fit in very well on the farm and with the people around it, she decided to let go of her plans to obtain a master’s degree and focus on taking over and growing her father’s business.

“My father was a son of shepherds and for a while he was a shepherd himself, so you could say he had an agricultural background, but he was always more than a farmer”, Sheila explains. “He was always interested in how he could transition farming practices to something better, so when he started farming, he tried to find an ecological way to do it.” In his endeavours to find a different approach to farming, Stavros influenced a lot of people, mostly fellow olive growers, to explore this new path he was on. Following their concern about how to transform olives into oil and sell this ecologically produced product to the consumer, his business took shape and grew. The business Sheila eventually took over.

“I had always wanted to come back to Greece when I was abroad. My return was earlier than I had planned, but when I saw the region and the role my father and his business played here, how open the people here were to get information from us, I decided to stay put and help grow the business. Without any background in business practices – I am a sociologist and only knew I wanted to be an ethical entrepreneur – so it has been a bumpy ride.”

Along with her cousin Panos and surrounded by people looking to shift agricultural practices in Greece, Sheila worked first on getting her family company, Silver Leaf, on its feet and managing it in a way that felt right to her. With more farmers expressing their interest in regenerative farming contacting her, she is now transitioning the company towards the production of regeneratively sourced food. The Southern Lights was born.

The Southern Lights

All those years ago, Sheila’s father unknowingly took the first steps towards regenerative agriculture when he converted his farm to organic practices. He planted fruit trees among the farm’s citrus and olive trees to sustain the family. Wild growing leafy greens were left to grow and contributed to the farm’s food autonomy. The consistent practice of shredding prunings of the trees and leaving them on the soil increased the organic matter over the years, leaving the soil rich, fertile and ready for his daughter to take it one step further today.

Hosted on the farm she inherited from her father, in a predominantly agricultural area about 300 kms from Athens, The Southern Lights is an educational and land stewardship non-profit organisation. Its goal is to teach people about creating regenerative habitats, inhabitants and habits and support them in initiating their own projects and businesses. The project focuses on permaculture, agroforestry and regenerative farming as well as non-violent communication, natural building, healthy nutrition and movement, and renewable energy solutions. Sheila divides her time between working around the farm, facilitating workshops  and visiting or helping other eco-projects. She helped create the Greek informal Eco-Project network that aims to promote synergistic relationships among eco-projects in the country, in 2019. The Southern Lights is not only a regenerative farm but also a community experience. That community is what it’s all about to Sheila.

“One of the nicest things on the farm is when people who don’t have a farming background or who live far from nature come in and start taking initiative on the farm. When they come back after hours of work, their eyes bright and telling me they had an amazing experience and feel good after doing what they did… that’s really nice to me.”

“To me, the farm is a tool for people’s transformation and I am so happy to put it at the service of people’s growth and healing path. When I got this farm, I felt so lucky to have inherited it. I felt I couldn’t keep it to myself, I had to share it with other people. This is the motivation for why we receive people here for learning, for discovering and why other people are living here on the farm.”

A typical day on the job does not exist at The Southern Lights. “The farm is alive, and like the plants and seasons, everything changes and transitions all the time.” Even the community on the farm is ever changing, with volunteers and visitors coming and going on the farm. “We try to have lunch together but even that does not always turn out the way we planned”, Sheila says. “The only constant we have is waking up when our rooster screams (laughs)”.

A search for understanding

After 35 years of carefully building organic and regenerative practices on the site, a big struggle of Sheila’s is when the more traditional practices of the neighbouring farms, such as spraying, affect hers and her colleagues are not receptive to considering, or respecting, other methods of farming.

“One time I was driving on the road along our farm and I saw another tractor coming up the road, spraying on the street between his land and my land. I stopped and asked “what are you doing here? Why are you spraying half on my farm, my farm is organic”, but hit a wall of ignorance and, frankly, egoism about our farming practices. I was really angry and felt so helpless and powerless. I got back into the car, being sure he would stop but he just started again. Those are the difficult moments, to me, when others start spraying around are farm and aren’t open to communication.”

If she has to think of the difficulties that come with her job, the lack of understanding for what she is trying to achieve and feeling of isolation come to mind. “I think it’s the lack of more peers that are on a similar path. Today, I feel I found them but it was difficult to be one of the only ones who tried to do farming in this way, having not many people to exchange about it. A learning community is really important to learn yourself and feel you are not alone in all of this.”

Finding peers in her field of work and people to really connect with was not easy, but even if gender patterns might be a bit more traditional in rural Greece, Sheila never really had the feeling that she was perceived differently for being a woman in agriculture. “I feel I was not really raised as a woman or a girl but just as a human. For me, gender is not really something I perceive, it’s not a topic to me.”

“Sometimes someone mentions during a workshop that there are so many women and very few men, and I realise I just hadn’t noticed! To me the participants at my workshop are just a bunch of humans. Gender is really not something that sticks out in my mind as a characteristic, I focus more on other human traits such as being gentle, aggressive,… these kind of things”, she explains, saying she very rarely experiences a difference in behaviour towards her as a woman, although she realises she is very lucky.

“My father was a very charismatic person, very authentic and honest. He supported people and I feel that now people project this on me. When I started taking over the farm I felt it was more my age or lack of experience people noticed, rather than my gender, even if it’s hard to say what goes on in people’s minds of course.” When she drives a big truck or tractor, she does notice people turning their heads in the village but does not really stop to think about it.

“I think it’s because of my resistance to caring what people think that I never really perceive if people are having prejudices. We learn this in sociology: people have prejudices against almost everything. Whether you’re from one country or the other, are a woman or a man, play football, wear lipstick… it’s just how people’s minds work.”

“The only challenge I felt here in the region is that I had trouble connecting with the women living here in rural Greece. But actually, I had trouble to find people from all genders to connect with and I realise that lack of connection is probably a problem in the whole of rural Greece and maybe the world. It’s challenging to come live in a rural area when you come from like… an educated background. Sometimes you miss that specific company to discuss the things that you have in your mind, in your heart. People tend to avoid deep conversations. That, to me, was the real challenge upon coming here.”

The regenerative movement

Today, surrounded by the community she built around herself, loneliness and lack of connection are no longer a problem on the farm. The movement Sheila started is now starting to spread beyond her farm and that is something she is very grateful for. “This is what makes it all worth it, to me. Seeing more farmers changing the way they practice agriculture, having farmers from all over the country getting in touch with me and the organisation we founded to support the regenerative farming transition in Greece. One of the best parts of my day is reading those farmers’ e-mails where they tell me how they want to transform their operations.”

“Our hope is to bring regenerative farming to the attention of the Greek people and policy makers. My goal is for every young farmer out there in Greece and beyond to know they don’t need to spray chemicals to have a successful operation. I hope to see every young farmer start being curious about how the soil works. How the interaction between the soil and the trees works. The role micro organisms play in the whole cycle. My dream is to grow a learning community in Greece where we can learn together and realise that farming is not just a job, that we are not here to just grow a crop and sell it. We are part of an ecosystem and we are serving that ecosystem by regenerating the soil, the water cycle, the habitat and the biodiversity.”

“We need everybody to be part of this transition of the way we live. We need everybody to ask themselves “how can I be of service, how can I make a difference”. And not just in their free time or hobbies. We need people asking themselves “how can my job be contributing to regenerating this world instead of degenerating it. How could I transition my life”. We don’t all have to become farmers, but we could all ask ourselves what our unique role could be in making a change. What is our own unique strength and passion to contribute to the world?”

“I truly believe that once you found that path, you will find a way to live from it and it will all come together. If anybody reading this has a puzzle piece to add to this beautiful picture of regenerative farming in Greece we initiated at the Southern Lights, we are very happy to hear from you. Come find us!”

 

 


 

About Sheila

Sheila Darmos (34) is a second generation farmer on the farm she inherited from her father, Stavros. After studies abroad and extensive work at several non-profit organisations focusing on animal rights, child labour and fair trade, she decided to found a non-profit of her own on her father’s land and started The Southern Lights with her cousin. Today, Sheila built a community living on the farm, where sharing knowledge and human interaction centred around regenerative agriculture and agroforestry practices are the main focus. From her home base, Sheila hopes to initiate a movement that will ripple throughout her country and beyond.

You can follow The Southern Lights and see what the project is about

Through their website

On Instagram

On Facebook

For more information about the regenerative movement in Greece, you can have a look at

The website

The Instagram page

The Facebook page

 

 

 

 

This article was published in Women in Ag Magazine 2022-3. Click here to read the magazine.

 

 

 

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