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Farmer instructed by God to yell

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Working the land is a gamble, one angry lifelong farmer tells THEO PANAYIDES, and credits praying to St Parthenios for curing his cancer

Tractors parked in single file, blocking the road as far as the eye can see. It’s February 8 and farmers have descended on Nicosia from all over Cyprus, parked outside European Union House and facing – so they claim – a perfect storm of problems (most of them caused by the EU’s green agenda) that threatens to destroy the whole farming sector.

A union rep gives me a quick rundown. Most of the old pesticides have been banned for environmental reasons, and the new approved replacements are inadequate. (A farmer shows a photo of his orchard, the ground strewn with fallen oranges.) The EU is preparing to import cheaper, unregulated goods from Latin America. EU-wide policy is inflexible, thus for instance a rule about not being allowed to spray within 150 metres of a river or stream is fine for bigger countries with big tracts of land, but impractical for Cyprus. Brexit has changed the UK market, making our exports uncompetitive. The war in Ukraine has flooded the market with cheap wheat. And so on.

Andreas Theophanous stands a little way away, talking to another farmer. The rep points him out when I ask for someone who might be willing to talk about his life – not because he knows Andreas personally, but because it’s clear that he loves to talk. He’s a striking figure, with his snow-white hair and Santa Claus beard (the beard a sign of mourning for his brother, who passed away four months ago), and hails from Troulloi, a buffer-zone village up the road from Oroklini. He’s been a farmer – renting land, and growing grain on it – for 46 years, since the age of 20.

Actually, he was close to the land (“a helot of the land,” as he puts it) even earlier, when he and his brother would take care of their dad’s flock of sheep; Andreas’ father pulled him out of school at the age of 12, to help on the farm. He never had a Plan B apart from farming, no particular talent he longed to pursue – but he surely might’ve made a good lawyer, in another time and place. Andreas has always been an organiser (he formed the first association of grain producers, back in the day) and always one to stand up for his rights.

“I hear God telling me, ‘Re Andrea, yell!’,” he says. (Any translation into English is bound to be a watered-down version of his colourful Cypriot.) “That’s why I’m always shouting at people that we have to assert ourselves – we have to yell. We can’t be fatalistic.”

profile the churchin troulloi
The church in Troulloi

God watches over his life in another way too. The day before the protest – February 7 – is the name day of St Parthenios, an obscure 3rd-century saint whose obscurity is somewhat undeserved since he is, after all, the patron saint of cancer patients. Andreas only heard about this saint on February 6, 1998. It was a coincidence (he happened to hear about it on the radio), but a fortunate one – because two days earlier, the then 41-year-old father of five had been told he had cancer. The disease had begun in his colon, then spread; by the time the doctors found it, he was riddled with it.

What happened next may strike outsiders as dubious – but Andreas himself is sure of it. Indeed, he says, the reason he agreed to talk to me was as much to spread the word about St Parthenios as to lament the problems in the farming sector. He prayed to the saint, he recalls, and the saint “performed a miracle in the hospital. He cured me. He resurrected me”.

What did the doctors say?

“The doctors, 25 years ago when I was full of cancer and they threw up their hands, when I did an ultrasound five months later and they saw I was clean, they couldn’t believe it.” Andreas nods sagely: “I believed it. And I still believe”.

As so often with such things, laying out the details is an invitation to pick holes in the story. Still, here goes: the doctors opened him up, did what they could (not much), then put him on oxygen in a hospital bed, more dead than alive. At one point, the oxygen tank malfunctioned; an alarm bell rang, and a nurse reached him in the nick of time. It was just as well you rang that bell, the nurse told him later; a few seconds later and you’d have suffocated – but Andreas pointed out that he’d barely been conscious, and certainly in no position to ring a bell. He then started chemo, more in hope than expectation of improvement – yet a few months later, as he says, the cancer was gone.

One thing, at least, is undeniable: the cave in the hills around Troulloi, which Andreas has transformed into a shrine to St Parthenios. There’s also a bigger church now – but the cave came first, “and a lot of people come who are suffering from cancer. We had a wake there the other day, [on his name day], we had 170 chairs and the place was full of sufferers coming to seek the saint’s help, and his grace.

farmers protest in nicosia
A farmer holds a placard during a protest over price pressures, taxes and green regulation, grievances shared by farmers across Europe, outside the European Union office in Nicosia, Cyprus February 8, 2024. REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou

“When you have cancer,” he opines, “if you don’t look to God, or a saint – all saints perform miracles – no-one can help you. Before you even die, you’ll go crazy from the thought that you’re dying!” St Parthenios cured him, he believes, “so I want you to write that in Troulloi there’s a church of St Parthenios, patron saint of cancer patients, and a cave too… And he helps a lot of people – so anyone who wants to, give them my phone number and have them call me. They can come up, and I’ll take them there.”

We’re interrupted by a general hubbub, then a deafening honking of tractor horns. Word has arrived from the presidential palace that the farmers’ demands have been met (or at least promises have been made, shrugs Andreas cynically), so the protest is over, at least for now. They’ll be back, he reckons as the tractors trundle off. The problems are too big, the sector too beleaguered to be solved so easily – and indeed, though a ‘golden age’ did exist in Cyprus in the 80s, farming in general is a tricky business (even without the EU), always a hair’s-breadth away from disaster.

“Unfortunately, a farmer is like a gambler,” muses Andreas. “We plant in October or November – and you just don’t know. It could be going well, then because of a storm you lose the whole year. It’s a gamble, our job. It’s not what you’d call a steady job.”

It’s little wonder that farmers turn to religion – and indeed, he doesn’t just pray to ‘his’ saint for health problems, but professional matters too. Every morning he’ll go to the cave, the shrine, where a candle burns all day long. “I’ll take oil from the candle and cross myself, I’ll light his candle, get some charcoal and do a blessing, I’ll pray for his help, then leave.” Last year was a drought year, says Andreas – and the trouble with a drought year is that it affects the following year too, since you don’t have money to buy seeds for planting.

Last May he was beginning to get desperate, wondering what to do – so he went to the cave and prayed. “Please help me so I can plant again,” he asked St Parthenios. “I have total faith in you, that you can do it”. Then he left, he recalls, “I calmed down and it didn’t bother me anymore. I knew he’d take care of it. And he sent me two guys. I told them I’d give them a cheque at the end of the year – and they brought me seeds and fertiliser, and I planted”. He doesn’t specify who the guys in question were; the point is that they arrived unexpectedly – as if sent by providence – and saved the day.

In the old days, of course, all these mystical contortions would’ve been unnecessary – because they had the Co-op. In a drought year, Andreas would go to the Co-op (they knew him well, after all his years in the business) and borrow money, which he’d then repay the next year. There’s an equivalent now, a state compensation scheme, but it takes too long (hence, in part, today’s protest) – an inefficient outcome that makes him angry, just as the demise of the Co-op makes him angry. “Illiterate people [i.e. farmers] built it, then the educated people destroyed it,” he fumes. “So they could steal.”

Quite a lot of things make Andreas Theophanous angry. It’s easy to forget, since he’s so boisterous and convivial – but he also formed the first grain-producer association, as already mentioned (unaffiliated to any party), and led a lengthy 18-day protest in the days of Tassos Papadopoulos. “We took the tractors, even the combines, and we took them to Nisou and stayed there for 18 days… I was sleeping in the pickup truck in the cold. And we finally managed to convince Papadopoulos”. It was right after we’d joined the EU, he recalls, “and they hadn’t told us how to fill in the forms properly” – so the farmers stayed on the road till the government agreed to a year’s grace period, scrapping the fines which they’d already issued; Andreas actually walked (it’s unclear why) all the way from Nisou to Parliament to make his case. God did instruct him to yell, after all.

More recently he yelled when he and other villagers cultivated some barren hilly land around Troulloi, on their own initiative – only for the government, which owns the land, to demand rent. “If we were in Israel, they’d build a statue to us!” he protested to the agriculture minister. (The minister backed down.) “And why? So they can steal even more,” he adds indignantly. Andreas takes a dim view of the government in general – “I’ll tell you one thing. The last people who’ll go hungry in Cyprus are the civil servants” – which hasn’t stopped him from urging his kids to get government jobs. Four of the five are indeed in the public sector, one daughter being a cop while another is an educational psychologist and another a nurse – the youngest one inspired by her childhood, when her dad had cancer and was cared for by nurses (and St Parthenios).

One thing makes him angriest of all, however: the fact that he still, at 66, has to farm the land, because his pension is so meagre (€500, minus a 12 per cent penalty for starting to claim at 63). He’s begged three former presidents over the years, “I told them, ‘Set up a pension for the farmers. I’m not saying you should give them €3,000, like civil servants get – but €1,000, €1,500, so they can live with dignity’.” His dad still had to work into his 70s, even back in the golden age – and now it’s happening to him too.

It’s not that he hates being close to the land, not after 46 years – but it’s hard work: “We might be up all night, when we’re tying the hay… I’ve had times when I didn’t sleep for two days and nights, and was bumping my head against the tractor”. Farming is hard, it’s risky, it’s unpredictable. You wonder why anyone would choose to do it – even before the current storm of wars and regulations made it well-nigh impossible. “There won’t be a farmer left,” he predicts grimly – which would be a shame, and not just for obvious reasons.

Andreas Theophanous probably wouldn’t thrive in the EU. His opinions aren’t exactly politically correct, even beyond being unfashionably religious. He complains about the Natura sites around Troulloi (it’s like birds are more important than people, he scoffs), and blames women’s rights, at least in part, for high divorce rates. ‘Was Cyprus better in the past?’ I ask – and he nods vigorously.

“Much better. Much better! And I’ll tell you why… Because there was still anthropia,” he says, using the Greek word that translates as ‘decency’ or ‘humanity’.

Meaning what? Thinking of others?

“Exactly! I’m human first and foremost, I have feelings. I don’t care about money, may it rot and burn.” People used to help each other, he affirms, “a housewife would bake bread and take the first loaf to her neighbour” – whereas now they don’t, money rules the roost. “You’re only going to find anthropia in some villages,” says Andreas – “and among farmers… We’re still just about holding on to it, trying to pass it on to our children and grandchildren.

“And that’s what I’m yelling about. ‘When farming goes,’ I always say, ‘Cyprus will be lost, and decency too’.” He stands on the pavement – the tractors now gone – like a man from another time and another culture, then trudges to his car for the ride back to Troulloi.

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