Producing miracles: Lebanese farmers unearth fresh stream of agricultural income

Lebanese farmers unearth fresh stream of agricultural income
7 min read
31 October, 2022

Luckily for Lebanon's farmers, resilience doesn't seem to be in short supply. Forced to think outside the box, they are uniquely equipped to find innovative solutions to a seemingly endless list of national problems. 

Now, they are shifting from harvesting traditional plants to more medicinal, herbal and aromatic plants as a means to survive, after Lebanon's economic crisis led to drastic price increases in fertilisers, pesticides and water. 

Explorations into aromatic and medicinal plants could provide much-needed revenue for Lebanon’s cash-strapped people during its worst financial crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.

"Water creates life and fertilisers help scale up production. Unfortunately in Lebanon both of those are in short supply"

"Water creates life and fertilisers help scale up production. Unfortunately in Lebanon both of those are in short supply," said Ghaleb Hashem, a farmer from Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.

Hashem, like many others in the country, now acknowledges the importance of transitioning from dependence on artificial and ready-made supplies in the market to ones produced independently with the use of organic and recycled materials. At the same time, Hashem is incorporating more medicinal, herbal, and aromatic plants after realising their potential. 

The need for a backup plan meant that crop diversification (Multicrop) is increasingly popular with farmers in Lebanon. Crop diversification is the process of planting more than one type of crop and increasing varieties to avoid relying on one season of production and thus secure a yield throughout the year that the farmer can financially benefit from.

The dependence on one type of product is no longer feasible as falling prices, exposure to certain pests or diseases, and certain political setbacks have all impacted their businesses.

Wheat groats are milled during bulgur preparation in the Lebanese southern town of Marjayoun
Wheat groats are milled during bulgur preparation in the Lebanese southern town of Marjayoun [Getty Images]

Matters were made worse after the Arabian Gulf closed its export doors for Lebanese fruits and vegetables after finding shipments being used for drug smuggling. Farmers in Lebanon consequently suffered a setback in which their crops piled up and their prices fell with increased competition and product availability in the domestic market given the inability to export.

The cultivation of herbal, aromatic, and medicinal plants has helped reduce costs and led to an increase in farmer supply. 

According to Sylvana Raydan, a microbiologist and agriculture engineer, these plants are gaining popularity as less irrigation and maintenance are needed, which in turn reduces the costs involved in spraying, pruning, and tillaging. On the contrary, they can be useful for other varieties that keep insects away and attract beneficial pollinators.

Whilst Lebanon has diversified agricultural land and a comparative advantage in a variety of vegetables and fruits, farmers are faced with major constraints, including climate change.

Although the country is an agrarian society, rainfalls have become unpredictable, and previously reliable weather conditions have become increasingly volatile. 

“Our seasonal calendar of crops and production have been disrupted and we as farmers are finding it difficult to adapt to changes in the seasons," remarked Hashem to The New Arab

For Hashem and other small-scale farmers in the country, the lack of access to cheap water and imported products such as fertilisers and pesticides has forced farmers to adopt new methods. 

The cultivation of plants like thyme, sumac, rosemary, lavender, and saffron has encouraged a greater entrepreneurial spirit to try and stay ahead of the economic challenges. These practices are proving sufficient against the growing scale of the country’s challenges.

Agriculture engineer Nijad Saed Eddine emphasised to The New Arab that “the cultivation of traditional fruits and vegetables is steadily declining due to the intensive and costly maintenance involved, as a result, traditional farmers in the country are struggling to maintain the production and profit.”

Lebanon’s deteriorating economy has also severely hampered their ability to purchase tools, spare parts, and various essential products to support their business, which has forced the move to a low-input system which in turn has led to a decrease in production levels, threatening the livelihood of farmers.

Live Story

Cultivation and production of herbal and spice plants

It’s early in the morning, and the farmhands are shaded by wide-brimmed sun hats as they work in the fertile lands of Baalbeck, the ancient Phoenician city known for its sunshine.  

For farmers, the cultivation of thyme is considered auxiliary as it does not need the plough of land, compost, sow, or plant replacement to grow from year to year. This of course also depends on the care and irrigation.

Growing thyme has become widespread in different regions of Lebanon due to its material profitability and low cost.

Shawki Al-Haj, a 67 years old farmer from the region, told The New Arab: “Thyme prices are similar to the stock exchange, they are governed by supply and demand, in one week the price of a kilo of thyme rose 100%, reaching 300 Lebanese pounds after it was 150 Lebanese pounds.”

Shawki attributes this increase to a greater demand for it, particularly due to the high prices of dairy products, which increased the consumption of thyme in households in Lebanon, and its export abroad contributed to its high price.

Many residents are ditching the urban grind for ancestral towns and villages, where they can cut on living costs and forge new connections to a long-forgotten agricultural inheritance [Getty Images]
Many residents are ditching the urban grind for ancestral towns and villages, where they can cut on living costs and forge new connections to a long-forgotten agricultural inheritance [Getty Images]

From the harvest to the plate, sumac grows in mountainous regions in Lebanon and along with other products, sumac grows widely as a secondary product where its harvested in the summer. Seeds are split from the branch and sifted to remove any contaminants where raw seeds are left to dry in the blaze of the sun for a few days before being taken to the grinding factory where a deep red hue and natural citrusy powder are produced. 

Up in the distant and craggy mountains of Warhanieh Shouf, Wissam Ghanem produces local organic sumac that gives her financial independence and an incentive to produce more.

For Ghanem, the financial crisis in Lebanon had brought renewed attention to such valuable wild plants. She told The New Arab: “In our village, sumac is popular because many farmers rely on agriculture as a source of income and the production of sumac is important to sustain their livelihoods."

“Saffron Du Liban”, a project that began in 2020 led by two Lebanese architects, Karl Karam and Jihad Faraj who turned to local agriculture when things shifted after the 2019 economic crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic that hit the country.

“We can’t compete on the quantity but we can compete on the quality," Karam said to The New Arab. “Initially people did not know that saffron can grow in Lebanon, people were very curious, interested, perhaps even doubtful," said Karam.

Sky-high inflation has put further strains on the already stretched sector, and basic and necessary services, such as watering are an extra burden, so crops such as saffron provide a huge advantage.

“When we first started our business and decided to grow saffron, we never did because it required low watering, but now I see why people are going for crops that require little watering, or fertilizers and pesticides,” said Karam.

Karam's saffron project is resisting Lebanon’s structural incompetence but for Karam " everything feels 10 times harder because everything basic is just not there."

Cultivation of aromatic plants

Rima Arbid, owner of the “LavenderMine” business in the Chouf mountainous region of Lebanon has turned growing lavender from a hobby to a business.

Beyond offering financial security, Arbid’s business proves that one can make a living out of aromatic plants when quality and compliance are prioritised.

Similarly in the fertile lands of the Bekaa Valley, once the morning dew evaporates, Salem al-Azouq, a man in his mid-40s, and his wife Nahla al-Zarda, a Syrian refugee family manually harvest rose petals from the seeds that Salem carried from Syria to Lebanon.

Roses are blooming and harvesting takes place two to three times a week in the morning when “roses are sleeping and their vivid aromatic fragrance is fresh”, according to Salem.

The roses are used to make rose water, syrup, jam, and herbal tea – all of which are used in a range of Middle Eastern recipes.

Live Story

Outside the growing season, Salem runs workshops for Syrian refugees and locals using his expertise in organic and sustainable farming techniques, including making fertilisers and natural pest control from food waste, such as banana and potato peels.

Salem explained that a growing number of people are seeking cheaper methods to maintain their health and growth of crops given that prices of readymade fertilisers and pesticides have drastically soared.

A farmer’s ability to overcome today’s challenges directly affects what shows up on the country's plates but experts fear that this growing trend could potentially affect the already threatened food security in Lebanon as more farmers plan to invest their money and time in such crops and reduce the traditional farming of vegetables and fruits. 

Rodayna Raydan is a Lebanese British journalism graduate from Kingston University in London covering Lebanon.

Follow her on Twitter: @Rodayna_462