Innovation, resilience, and desperation are some of the few commodities that are not in short supply in Lebanon, with farmers of all generations keen to adapt and rethink their farming practices to overcome economic woes and climate challenges amid the country’s financial crisis.
Since fertilizer and pesticide use are at an all-time high and water is scarce, many farmers have converted to aromatic and herbal plants. They have increasingly become convinced with the cultivation of crops, such as thyme, sumac, lavender, saffron and chamomile.
As aromatic plants tolerate water scarcity, rural farmers are increasingly exploring adaptable local species that could provide their cash-strapped pockets with a much-needed income to keep them in business.
Aromatic agriculture is primarily driven by the minimal physical effort required to grow such crops, as well as their wide range of applications. In addition to being used in the food industry, they are also widely used in distillation, perfumery, and pharmaceuticals.
More farmers in Lebanon are heeding the advice of agricultural and environmentalist experts in order to lower formidable challenges, adjust to new sustainable farming practices, and reduce dependency on water-intensive crops.
According to agricultural engineers in the largest nature reserve in the country, the Chouf Biosphere Reserve Nijad Saed Eddine, farmers in Lebanon are increasingly embracing crop diversification (multi-crop) as a backup plan. This strategy involves planting multiple crops and increasing variety to ensure a consistent yield throughout the year, thereby avoiding dependence on a single season of production. Ultimately, this approach enables farmers to reap financial benefits.
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.
Relying solely on one product is no longer viable due to fluctuating prices, susceptibility to pests and diseases, and potential political setbacks, all of which can significantly affect business operations.
Furthermore, the effects of climate change are evident in the inconsistency of rainfall patterns and the unpredictability of weather.
Cultivation of herbal crops and aromatic plants
The cultivation of thyme in the South has become a “green gold” for Southerners who depend on the crop for their livelihood by selling it in the local market and to exporters outside the country.
Kassem Badreddine, a 67-year-old rural farmer, told NOW more about his experience in the cultivation of thyme, also known as zaatar.
“Despite having hundreds of apple trees planted on my land, I was losing out season after season due to reduced production and higher costs incurred by paying for water tanks, fertilizers, and medicines to combat pests and diseases that were affecting the crop every year,” Badreddine told NOW.
Due to its tolerance for water scarcity and resistance to diseases and pests, Badreddine decided to switch his plot of land to thyme.
According to Badreddine, the crop only requires periodic irrigation and maintenance, reducing his costs because it requires less spraying, pruning, and tilling.
This also resonates with the expert opinion of microbiologist and agriculture engineer, Sylvana Raydan, who told NOW, “growing thyme is considered low-maintenance as it doesn’t require tilling, fertilizing, seeding, or replanting each year. However, proper care and watering are still necessary for optimal growth.”
Additionally, other types of plants can benefit from thyme’s insect-repelling and pollinator-attracting properties.
In Rachaya Al Wadi, Jehad Zeidan cultivates organic sumac, which gives him financial independence and an incentive on top of his wheat and chickpea lands.
In Zeidan’s opinion, Lebanon’s financial crisis has rekindled interest in such valuable wild plants. “Sumac is becoming increasingly popular in our village each season. More and more people are venturing to the mountains to pick the crop for profitable sales and many individuals have opted to grow the plant on their abandoned lands.”
Many Lebanese were surprised to learn that saffron, a spice, dye, and medicine, could be grown and produced in their country. Karam, the founder of “Saffron Du Liban,” explained that people were curious, interested, and even skeptical about this discovery.
Through cultivating and manufacturing ample amounts of lavender products, the farm has established financial stability and is filling the gap in the local market by manufacturing sufficient amounts of lavender products for businesses to purchase, eliminating the need to rely on the global market.
The steep rise in inflation renders basic services like watering a significant burden, giving crops like saffron that require minimal watering provide a significant 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.
From a hobby to a business
The Choueiri Lavender Farm in the fertile Bekaa Valley cultivates lavender with a vivid and aromatic fragrance. The scenic process of production from the field to the high-end final product has been attracting both tourists and locals to witness firsthand.
In an interview with NOW, Ramzi Choueiri, owner of the farm, explained more about his business and how it is going amid Lebanon’s economic crisis.
“Through cultivating and manufacturing ample amounts of lavender products, the farm has established financial stability and is filling the gap in the local market by manufacturing sufficient amounts of lavender products for businesses to purchase, eliminating the need to rely on the global market,” Choueiri explained.
Farmers are increasingly realizing the importance of reducing their dependence on artificial and pre-made products available in the market. Instead, they are opting to produce their own supplies using organic and recycled materials, such as fermented manure from livestock grazing, which is an effective source of organic compost.
Additionally, to reduce the cost of pest control, they have also started to include more aromatic plants in their farming practices as they are insect-repelling.
The success of farmers in confronting current challenges has a direct impact on the food we receive. However, experts are concerned that this trend may further jeopardize the already fragile food security in Lebanon, as an increasing number of farmers are willing to invest in such crops means a reduction in the cultivation of traditional fruits and vegetables.
Rodayna Raydan is a Lebanese-British journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @Rodayna_462.