THEO PANAYIDES meets one of the island’s largest pig farmers who sounds the death knell for animal farming on the island in general
You learn something new every day, and today we’re going to learn about impregnating pigs on a pig farm. (I love this job.) Insemination is now automated, Christakis Neophytou assures me – though not, as it turns out, completely automated.
The basic process is straightforward enough: a sow is turned around, with her backside facing Christakis and his staff, then a plastic tube is slipped in. The tube is connected to what looks like an IV drip, filled with a thick liquid that turns out – surprise! – to be pig sperm. That’s not all, however. The farmer also has to ensure that the sow is properly aroused and ready to receive the sperm – so his farm population of around 16,000-18,000 pigs also includes four adult male pigs whose only role in life is to parade up and down in front of the sows, giving off a masculine scent and making the females feel like there’s a man about the house. Meanwhile one of Christakis’ employees hovers behind the sows, checking to see if it’s time to insert the tube. I try to talk to this gentleman, to find out how exactly he knows that the pig has been aroused – but he’s too busy, or perhaps he doesn’t want to talk. I can’t really blame him.
Christakis’ farm, just inside the buffer zone behind the old Nicosia airport, is among the biggest in Cyprus – though in fact there isn’t much competition; there are only about 30 pig farms on the island, and only about half of those could rightfully be called ‘big’. There used to be more, Christakis tells me dolefully, but many were forced to close down about three or four years ago. The pig-farming sector (and indeed the animal-farming sector) is in crisis, and even his own farm has barely kept its head above water in the past half-decade – a result, above all, of cheaper meat being imported from other EU countries.
This is a recurring theme in our conversation, so I might as well set it down now. “In five or 10 years,” as Christakis puts it, “given the laws we have and the way our government operates, animal farming will have disappeared in Cyprus. There won’t be any animal farming. I’m not 10 years old, or 20, or 30 – I’m 66 years old, I’m a man who knows a lot about the business, whose ears have heard a lot and whose eyes have seen a lot, and it’s my belief that, unless the law changes, that’s where we’re going to end up.”
What does the Ministry of Agriculture say?
“The ministry…” he repeats, with a grunt of pure contempt. “What can the ministry say? We’ve warned them about these things a million times. ‘Oh, it’s EU regulations,’ they tell us. Well, so what? What do you mean, ‘It’s EU regulations’? You go and tell the EU that, being an island, we have certain costs! Put a 20 per cent tax on the products you import, so you can protect your own products. Simple as that.”
If we ever do a Brexit in Cyprus, I suspect the pig farmers (and farmers generally) will be leading the charge. The problem, I’m informed, sitting in an office with the sound of the feed mill whirring outside, is that Cyprus is a small island, so we can’t produce the food needed for animals and can’t easily import it, either – meaning our meat is invariably more expensive than foreign rivals – yet we also have to bear the brunt of EU legislation, just like any farm abroad. “If you come to this farm or go to a farm in Holland, you’ll find the same standards,” says a younger, scientific-looking fellow standing behind Christakis. “We don’t have any exemptions due to being an island. Whatever a Dutch animal farmer has to do, a Cypriot farmer has to do as well, there’s no derogation”. The younger chap is among several people drifting in and out of the office, also including two jocular characters of around Christakis’ age who join us round the table. I assume they’re fellow pig farmers, but in fact they turn out to be salesmen. “We’re the ones who squeeze out all the profits,” jokes one with a dry chuckle, as if to say there aren’t a lot of profits to squeeze out.
One aspect of the EU agenda can be seen as you drive up the road leading to the farm – a complex with dome-shaped buildings, surrounded by an overpoweringly fecal smell. This is a bio-energy power station, using (how to put this nicely?) pig shit to produce electricity, the kind of large-scale investment that must’ve put a lot of those smaller farms out of business. I’d been warned about the probable stench (we’re talking pigs, after all), but in fact the power station is by far the worst-smelling part of the place. For the most part, even in the pig pens, I sense only a vague ammonia-like odour, which however proves hard to shake. Many hours after I’ve left the farm – all day long, in fact – I still catch whiffs of the pungent aroma wafting from my clothes (or just trapped in my nostrils?), and look around guiltily to see if others can smell it too.
Christakis himself is used to it, of course. He’s 66, as already mentioned, and has been in the farming business since the age of 15, when he worked for his father. Dad’s old farm is down the road, now run by Christakis’ brother; there were six siblings, and all three boys ended up with a farm of their own. (The three girls, presumably, ended up getting married.) Christakis himself has four children – he married young, and built a handsome house just behind the pig farm in the mid-80s – and three of them, two sons and a daughter, work at the farm. What do his sons plan to do, with the future so uncertain? Well, he replies, one of them works as a vet, and the other one’s just starting out. He shrugs, with a touch of gallows humour: “Eh, I’ll make one president and the other one vice-president”.
It’s a typical response: hard-boiled, grimly humorous and a little bit cryptic, not giving anything away. Christakis is a tough customer, his terse, rather taciturn style typified by the winter cap he still wears, pulled down low over his head, even though it’s spring. He has green, rather bloodshot eyes, a grey moustache and sharp, hawkish features. I suspect (though of course I don’t know) that his friends are predominantly male and cherish him for his sardonic wit, and because he pulls no punches and tells it like it is.
The key to the man comes perhaps when I ask about hobbies and interests, not really expecting very much – yet it turns out that Christakis is quite an athlete, a star footballer in his youth (he was all set to play for the Apoel first team, but broke his leg) and, more importantly, a top-class marksman, Cyprus skeet-shooting champion for 15 years. This is a big deal, especially given that skeet shooting is the one sport where our athletes have consistently shone beyond Cyprus, even in the Olympics. Christakis’ private office is festooned with dozens of shooting trophies (he still wins them, now in the veterans’ category; he must have hundreds altogether) – and indeed he missed out on the 1984 Olympics by the narrowest of margins, after which he became disillusioned and stopped trying.
It takes a particular temperament to do well at shooting. It’s not just a question of good aim; it takes steady nerves, mental strength, the ability to keep your cool under pressure. Mr Christakis must be a very steady character, I suggest to the two salesmen, and they immediately agree (“Oh, extremely!”). I’m reminded of the war stories he’s told me, fighting in the deadly fiasco of 1974 then coming back to the farm – in what had just become the buffer zone – to find his buildings half-burnt and his pigs mostly killed. He and his brother rebuilt the farm then essentially stood guard over it, “firing shots in the air at night, and afraid we were going to be murdered”. It took years for things to settle down.
I’m also reminded that a pig farmer – especially when he’s also a champion shooter – isn’t likely to be sentimental. I’d never really seen pigs up close and they turn out to be fascinating creatures, the young piglets especially cute with their snouts twitching madly as they gaze at me. It’s a bit distressing to recall that Easter is just around the corner, and many of them are likely to end up on a spit as gourounia, i.e. roast suckling pig (Christakis ships 550 animals a week to various butchers). Will he be having gourounia himself next Sunday?
Has he chosen the likely animal yet?
He shakes his head and looks at me, as if trying to make sense of a weird question: “They’re all the same”.
I guess they are, where meat is concerned; the young scientific-looking man has already told me that the pig is our most reliable friend in the animal kingdom, the easiest one to breed for food on an industrial scale. But in fact I saw a wide range of pigs, from the boars weighing in at 400 kilos (the equivalent of three very fat men, crammed into a squat shape the size of a coffee table) to baby piglets suckling on their mothers’ teats to the new and expectant mothers themselves, kept in a special enclosure. These are also massive, maybe 250 kilos, chewing food that dribbles from their mouths in a white foamy lather, many of them sharing their pen with a litter of tiny piglets, smaller than cats and gleaming pink.
One sow is giving birth to a litter as we pass; “Every five minutes she pops out another one,” notes Christakis, adding that the average sow becomes a mother 2.2 times a year. Another enclosure holds the sows who are between births, quietly wallowing in mud; food and water come automatically, each pen equipped with a large plastic feed-cup. Elsewhere, two assistants are going down a line of piglets, grabbing each in turn, holding it still and injecting it with iron; a few of the piglets squeal softly. Most of the staff (there are 20 employees in total) seem to be non-Cypriots, I point out, and Christakis nods grimly. “Cypriots are aristocrats,” he explains mockingly. “They refuse to work on farms, they’d rather get a government wage where they’re unemployed and get benefits. Why should they go to work, if they’re getting paid by the government?”
Like most 66-year-old men – though actually more than most – Christakis Neophytou seems quite grumpy about modern life and the state of society in general. Partly it’s because his work is hard. He’s up every morning at five (you have to be, “when you’re dealing with living things”) and trudges around his smelly farm in cap and boots till seven pm, not like those civil-servant jobs “where you go in at nine o’clock, or don’t go at all and claim that you did, and get a salary of 10,000 a month”. Partly, I suppose, it’s a question of personality. But it’s also something more: the frustration of a lifelong farmer who sees his sector – not just pig farming, but farming in general – becoming increasingly irrelevant in today’s Cyprus.
In his father’s day, the state used to subsidise the grain which farmers imported for feed, he says bitterly; nowadays, not only don’t they help but they actively try to destroy him. And it’s not just him, or even just animal farmers. We’re importing lemons and potatoes now, he exclaims, shaking his head – lemons and potatoes, which we used to be famous for! Soon we’ll all be eating tasteless (but cheaper) French apples. Christakis often goes hunting in the Pedoulas area, and recounts how he sees the apples piling up under the trees because it’s no longer viable to pick them. “Piled up! Just falling off the trees. Next year they’ll probably uproot the trees… And tomorrow it’ll happen with pigs, the day after with chickens.”
He blames “Europe”, but could just as well blame globalisation – and it’s easy for the urban sophisticate to say ‘Well, that’s the way of the world’, but that’s bound to seem cold comfort (and a step in the wrong direction) for someone who’s tended the same patch of land all his life, watching ‘his’ pigs grow year after year, litter after litter. He’s pessimistic, says Christakis: “If people get used to eating meat from abroad, we’re doomed”. That said, he’s had 50 mostly-good years as his own boss, doing something he enjoys. “I couldn’t be a goldsmith, for instance,” he muses, apropos of nothing (why a goldsmith?). “I wouldn’t like that job, working with gold. Or a civil servant, sitting on a chair and swindling people. I don’t like that. I like my work”. Even when it means sticking plastic tubes up porcine bottoms.