In 2013, a visit to Greece would change our lives. We just didn’t know it at the time. A holiday to Crete and exploring the rural east of the Island led Harry, my brother, to meet Eleni. He soon fell in love and eventually moved to the village of Zakros to be with her. Today, Zakros has become our home and Harry and Eleni are happily married, parents to a beautiful baby girl. The village is a place deeply connected to the seasons and with a different rhythm of life. A farming community, through and through, nestled by mountains and surrounded by olive trees. Part of a region officially recognised as a renowned area for the production of olive oil that’s deeply linked to local craft, tradition and land.
As we became part of the community we started to understand how deeply the olive tree, the culture and the village are connected. But we also realised that even in the far corner of Eastern Crete, there were pressures from a broken food system. Real pressures on people making a living working the land. Pressure we were seeing up close for the first time. On one hand a place with a heritage tied to the craft and production of incredible olive oil and on the other, a food system designed to work against the farmer and nature. A system that suppresses prices and in turn demands more yield just to maintain a livelihood. Chemicals were sold as a miracle cure, lowering risks and guaranteeing crops. A seemingly perfect solution. But today, that system has created huge monocultures, is destroying our soils and creating an ecosystem with little natural resistance. Olive trees on chemical life support.
We all know the consequences of this intensive farming system. Rising carbon levels, lack of biodiversity, chemical runoff into our oceans and degradation of soil, to name a few. And while it’s difficult to understand what that really means, in the 9 years since our first visit to Zakros and the 5+ years of farming, we’ve seen the reality of this up close. From the lack of water and rising wildfire risks to climate volatility and uncertainty. Producing food is becoming more difficult. For a rural farming community whose livelihoods depend on fertile land and olive oil production, it means an uncertain future. But we aren’t alone, the challenges in Zakros are echoed across the world. While the current industrialised food system creates these problems, food and farming can also be part of the solution.
When we first arrived in the village, we started to understand the tension between these two sides; the beautiful generational craft and the intensive farming system that farmers had no option but to operate in. We knew there had to be another way. So in 2015, with no farming experience, we bought our own 200 olive trees and became unlikely apprentices to Jianiss, Eleni’s father, a seasoned olive farmer. Jianiss' patience and guidance taught us everything we know today. He passed on to us the lessons he was taught as a young farmer but gave us space to explore as we pushed against chemical farming.
We discovered the world of soil, fungi and microbes and began to understand that our fields are more than simply 200 olive trees. Instead a complete ecosystem interlinked, from microbes and mycelium to insects and flowering plants. We started working in ways that complimented natural systems, replicating the rhythms of the forest and focusing on soil health. Our experiments led us to collecting, culturing and redistributing beneficial microorganisms in our fields; essentially bringing life back into the soil.
Our focus has always been about creating an environment for life and nature to thrive. From manure, compost and olive offcuts chipped and inoculated with microbial teas to experiments with biochar, diverse cover crops and soon animal integration. Each, part of the journey of rebuilding the soil and increasing biodiversity. Choosing natural pest solutions such as kaolin clay over pesticides has allowed wildflowers, insects, bees and birds to flourish in their natural habitat.
At the start of this journey our fields needed a lot of care and attention. Later, just before our batch two harvest, we all went to the fields, eager to see how the trees were doing. I remember Jiannis saying how he couldn’t believe how strong the trees looked in such a short time, and that whatever we were doing was working.
In the U.K, we started building our small business and brand, Two Fields. Just like in the fields, it started out as an experiment to see if people were connected to what we are doing. Terms like Regenerative Farming weren’t really part of the conversation at that point and as we discovered these phrases, we realised others were also pushing back against this industrialised system. They wanted to learn more about natural and indigenous knowledge preserved over the years too. We understood building a better system relied on the ability to create something commercially viable and provide us with an income. And it became clear people were interested in Two Fields. They wanted to support and learn more about what we were doing. Our first and second batch sold out. We were building our own small independent system, based on transparency, regeneration and quality.
But then, a year later, our world changed. Very unexpectedly, Jiannis passed away. It’s impossible to do justice to our relationship with Jiannis and the love he showed us. He gave us so much, accepted us as family, taught us like sons. There is no greater gift than to be passed knowledge honed over generations. He was a true craftsman in every sense of the word. Teaching us what it meant to be part of something bigger and the idea of being stewards to the land.
Throughout our time in the village, we watched as the oil price dropped, fertiliser costs rose and insecurity put his livelihood at risk. Through his experiences, we saw the stress and difficulty of the current reality in Zakros. The plan was that one day he would join us. We would teach him regenerative methods and give him an opportunity to leave the old system behind. But we never got that chance. It’s one thing to know about the system, but another to feel it so personally. In the time since his passing we’ve really reflected on that idea of what it means to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Part of a community, part of a craft, part of a food system. We’re built on the idea that 200 olive trees can make a difference. Being small has kept us true to our craft; we hand pick every olive, hand number each bottle and every drop traceable back to our fields. The solution to the problems we see isn’t in large scale farms, it’s not how Zakros is set up. Instead what we need is more small scale farmers committed to their craft and farming in harmony with nature. Working together in a system that recognises, promotes and rewards these values.
After everything that’s happened and all we’ve experienced, we know there’s no future in this intensive system. But Two Fields has proved another way is possible and that if we can connect the right people, we can create momentum and build something better. And that’s our plan. This year we take the first step into making that a reality. We’re launching a community based, social regenerative project. Scaling the impact we can have, not the trees that we own.
The project is focused on teaching regenerative farming methods on the ground, providing secure livelihoods for families and partnering with food changemakers in the U.K - Chefs, restaurants and bakeries - who recognise the need for a new way and want to be part of the regenerative movement. We’re building an alternative, independent system, by providing local farmers with the opportunity and knowledge they need to be part of the solution and farm differently. A system built on transparency, quality and nature. Change has to come from the inside of communities built from the ground up and led by producers. But it’s not possible without creating direct relationships with the people who want to be part of that change. A new system needs people supporting the producers doing things differently.
To date, we already have a small number of farmers in Greece and a handful of food businesses in the U.K that are part of that mission and are ready to officially launch the project this winter. Who knew that visit to Crete in 2013 would lead here. From Harry falling in love with Eleni to taking the first steps of the social regenerative project. But really, it’s only just the beginning. We know a better system is built together. A system that champions quality, soil, nature and people is possible. But it takes all of us coming together to make that happen.