On one side of a rural highway in north Lebanon’s Zgharta district, a small group of women moved through an olive grove gathering the remaining fruits from the ground at the end of a day of harvesting.
Sleiman Daher, an olive farmer from the nearby village of Kfar Yasheet, gestured at a new shopping center on the other side of the road.
“This was all olives one year ago,” he said. The land where the women were working is also slated for development, as a shopping mall.
“In one year, you won’t see olives over there.”
Lebanon’s olive industry has suffered from an anemic harvest this year as a result of the past year’s dry weather. But Daher and other farmers said that the industry’s problems go deeper.
The problems, they believed, include a lack of comprehensive information about the market, the prevalence of outdated farming methods and lack of funding to update them as well as competition from cheaper oil flooding in from Syria and other countries in the region.
But the most existential problem, the farmers agreed, is young people are fleeing the industry en masse.
The average age of an olive farmer in Lebanon is 67 years, and less than 1 percent are under the age of 45, said Daher, who is also president of the Lebanese Interprofessional Syndicate of Olive Oil Producers, a trade group representing different sectors in the olive industry.
“After 10 years, you’re not going to find olives in Lebanon,” he said.
“Or, at least, you’re not going to find people working in olives.”
Daher’s 23-year-old son, Chafic, who recently graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering after studying in France and England, said he has fond memories of seeing his father’s oil press – now mothballed because Daher finds it more financially viable to sell the unprocessed olives to oil producers – at work when he was a child.
But he and his siblings are not planning to follow his father into the industry.
“It’s not a viable business for long term,” Chafic said. “You are on on your own in this business.
“It’s a business that needs a lot of energy, that needs 24 hours working, and in the end you don’t make any money.”
Adding to the other issues is the fact farmers are not covered by the National Social Security Fund.
Eighty-six-year-old George Hanna Geha, an olive farmer and agricultural engineer in Koura who is so preoccupied with olives that he wrote and self-published a book on the subject, said he understands why the younger generation is fleeing the industry.
“Our young people are distant from the olives, but not without reason,” he said. “My family, we didn’t have anything but olives.
“In the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s and ’60s, we were selling oil and we could pay for university. The olives, now, you can’t do anything with them.”
The Investment Development Authority of Lebanon, which aims to promote exports of Lebanese products, painted a relatively rosy picture of the industry in a 2017 report, noting that Lebanese olive oil exports had been growing since 2014, and reached more than 10,000 tons in 2016.
“Equally noticeable was the predominance of extra virgin olive oil among total exports,” the report noted, estimating that the high-grade oil makes up 30 percent of Lebanese olive oil production.
Daher and Geha expressed skepticism of this figure, estimating that extra virgin olive oil, in fact, makes up less than 5 percent of all oil produced in the country.
Jamal Elmir, the owner of an oil press in the town of Eiaal, where local farmers pay LL8,000 ($5.33) per tank to convert their olives into oil, agreed that most don’t adhere to the practices needed to produce extra virgin olive oil.
“Extra virgin, you need less than 24 hours between harvest and processing,” he said. “We make a bit, but even if we make it, there’s no market. With regards to the domestic market, they don’t like the extra virgin olive oil. To have a market outside, you need support from the government, and we don’t have it.”
There are a few producers in the region who specialize in the extra virgin product and sell it abroad, but it takes an investment not available to all.
Joseph Khoury, owner of the Willani olive oil company in Bshnin, has automated every stage of the farming and pressing process.
Since he began using machines to aid in harvesting, rather than the labor-heavy traditional picking process in which workers whack the trees with long sticks to shake the olives loose Khoury said he has reduced the number of workers in the fields from more than 100 to 35.
“You save money in the long run, but the machine costs $100,000,” he said.
The public sector has aimed to support the industry by buying tanks of olive oil for the Lebanese Army, but Daher said that without testing the source of the oil, there is no way to know how much of the support is actually going to Lebanese farmers and how much is the cheaper oil coming from abroad.
Instead, he argued, the government should give funding directly to farmers to help them develop their technology and methods.
Meanwhile, the old oil press remains in its place in a warehouse behind Daher’s house, alongside a store of unwanted couches and household items.
Asked if he would consider returning the press to service, Daher paused for a moment.
“If my children want to work in olives, I’ll reopen it,” he said.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
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