As we move from fall into winter, countless farmers across Lebanon are currently hard at work gathering the year’s olive harvest.
“We usually start harvesting in late October or early November, depending on the weather and when the rains start,” Farmer Rami Hamad, based in southern Lebanon’s Hasbaya District, told Now Lebanon. “[Our] farm has about 70 olive trees, with the oldest being about 40 years old.”
“Olive trees depend on so many factors, and no grove is like another,” he added. “Everything from the weather, to the amount of rainfall, to the soil composition, to how the previous year’s harvest was handled affects the amount, flavor and growth of the olives.”
Olives and olive oil have been cultivated in Lebanon for over 8,000 years, and both are popular staples of Lebanese cuisine. Yet, despite this rich heritage, the country’s producers often go overlooked when it comes to the wider global market, due to minimal large-scale production and outdated, inefficient agricultural practices.
We learn our trade by having the know-how passed down from each generation, like an inheritance, but today we are in a modern world. A farmer should supplement their knowledge with the science and research available. Traditions are good, but there is always room to improve.
These difficulties have only grown more pronounced in recent years. Operating costs have risen dramatically because of both the global COVID-19 pandemic and the Lebanese economic crisis, while local purchasing power has been massively diminished by the almost total collapse of the Lebanese lira.
“These days, we’re seeing a lot of lands that are not clean – weeds everywhere and overgrown – because they can’t afford the good pesticides and weed killers,” Hamad lamented. “Some farmers lose trees that become infected, or their whole batch of olives will become infested with fruit flies. Some are unable to secure laborers to pick the fruit; if they can’t get laborers on time, their olives will become too ripe to use, making it a complete loss.”
Enter Dot-Olive, a multilateral program under the auspices of the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation (AICS) and the European Commission. Led by the NGO Centro Laici Italiani le Missioni (CELIM), the project provides aid and assistance to olive oil producers in the Hasbaya District by offering affordable support services, as well as sustainability training and improved operational practices.
Special focus is given to the promotion, marketing and sale of Lebanese olive oil, both abroad and in the country, through the Mount Hermon Olive Oil Consortium, allowing otherwise disparate farmers to unite under a single, definitive brand.
“The main targets of our project are to improve the quality of the olive oil, and to reduce the risks and environmental impact on the Hasbani River,” explained Project Officer Rabab Aouad. “[The farmers] need training, [but also] proof to justify changing their practices. That’s why you need to start from the field.”
“There are many farmers that still need help,” agreed Farmer Nabil Badawi. “We learn our trade by having the know-how passed down from each generation, like an inheritance, but today we are in a modern world. A farmer should supplement their knowledge with the science and research available. Traditions are good, but there is always room to improve.”
Despite having the highest proportion of arable land of any country in the MENA region, Lebanon’s agriculture sector remains severely undeveloped and lacking in modernization. This has resulted in entrenched farming practices that actually do more harm than good to crop plants, including the olive trees.
Traditionally, the harvesting of olives is achieved by striking the fruit-bearing branches with long sticks to dislodge the olives. However, this can damage the trees, exposing them to diseases, and even destroy new buds that would eventually grow to form next year’s harvest, massively diminishing crop volumes and, thus, the farmers’ incomes.
By using the mechanical pickers provided by CELIM, farmers no longer have to leave their groves to recover every other year, which each year provides a full annual yield. This directly enhances their profits. However, the Dot-Olive team is also careful to reduce their running costs wherever possible.
“The rent price each day for the pickers [from us] is very cheap [compared to] others,” said Aouad. “If you give [the farmers] the right tools, at a good price, they won’t need more. You [just] need to change the practices to get the quality, and they start changing their minds.”
The most significant elements of Dot-Olive’s efforts are the automatic mill and bottling plant they operate for the farmers. With access to these facilities, the farmers are able to produce purer, more high-quality products than they could with a traditional, open mill.
My sons took a more scientific career path; one is an engineer and the other is a computer technician, and they are moving abroad for work. It’s good to go out and experience everything when young, but – at the end of the day, when they’re older and have done what they set out to do – they will come back to these olive groves and provide for them.
Parameters like light exposure or oxygen and temperature levels can have a radical effect on the milling process, as they can start chemical reactions inside the oil, causing it to become acidic and bitter. Dot-olive’s milling machines avoid this by being completely sealed and constructed out of non-reactive stainless steel.
The output olive oils are then blended, bottled and aged to create Mount Hermon extra virgin olive oil.
“From the growing and picking of the olives, to the mill, to us [at the bottling plant], our team oversees all the techniques and handling,” Technician Rashad Al-Halabi explained. “From A to Z, the processes are known and standardized, cutting unnecessary costs and giving the best possible quality olive oil.”
“The farmers traditionally would store their oil in plastic bottles or big cans, which are bad for the longevity of the olive oil,” he continued. “The oil we’re aging and bottling here goes for lab tests for certification and full traceability. The oil can then be marketed both locally and for export internationally.”
Farmers who are not registered with the Mount Hermon Olive Oil Consortium can still use the mill for processing their own harvests, improving community outreach. Even the liquid waste produced by the olive milling process has a surprising amount of versatility if properly harnessed.
“[The farmers] use too much fertilizer,” explained Aouad. “It’s costly and bad for the environment, and you don’t even need it. [We want] to encourage the farmers to use the liquid waste [from the mills] for fertigation. It’s a natural fertilizer, [and] you can use the same liquid waste as a natural weed-killer, so it can be used for a double purpose.”
It is still unclear whether Hasbaya’s olive growers can truly adapt to the difficult circumstances they now find themselves in. Initiatives like Dot-Olive can offer support, but they are reliant on outside funding to remain active. Sustainable change will have to come from within the agricultural community itself.
“The next generation will bring even more advancement,” Badawi concluded. “My sons took a more scientific career path; one is an engineer and the other is a computer technician, and they are moving abroad for work. It’s good to go out and experience everything when young, but – at the end of the day, when they’re older and have done what they set out to do – they will come back to these olive groves and provide for them.”
Robert McKelvey is a British freelance journalist based in Beirut who covers art, culture and humanitarian issues across the Middle East. He can be followed on Twitter @RCMcKelvey.