Bekaa farmers hit as olive oil revenues fall

Olive farming in Lebanon is still very labor intensive and machines are rarely used.

HERMEL, Lebanon: While the north Bekaa might not be among Lebanon’s top olive oil producing areas, farmers in the area say their newly planted cash generating crops are no longer yielding profits.

Like many farmers in the area, Hassan Allam said Hermel farmers started planting olives hoping that their ability to store oil and its relatively high price would help improve income.

“High fuel prices, labor cost, middle men and competition from neighboring countries suggested olives would be a better crop,” he said. “But we were soon disappointed after produce started accumulating year after year.”

“I am stacking 250 [20 liter canisters] out of the 350 I produced this year,” said Hermel farmer Allam

To produce 1,250 kilograms of olives, Allam spent around LL12 million. He only expects to sell his produce for around LL10 million.

Hussein Chamas, head of the General Hermel Farmers Cooperative, said that olive farmers in the area are unable to sell the olive oil they produce, despite overall production falling to 25 percent of last year’s, when olive trees across the country were more productive.

Olives are highly cyclical crops with production varying from year to year, depending on weather conditions, particularly rainfall.

“Chaos reigns in olive oil trade and the government is failing completely to set standards and help farmers market their produce,” he said.

Out of 50,000 20-liter canisters bought last year by the Lebanese Army to help farmers, only 2,100 originated from Hermel, Chamas said, adding farmers have not been paid yet.

Khodor Jaafar, head of the Hermel Cooperatives Union, said high costs of production compared to neighboring countries are behind low sales.

“Olive farming in Lebanon is still very labor intensive and machines are rarely used. Oil imported from Syria can cost as little as LL50,000, while farmers here will make losses if they sell below LL120,000,” he said.

Export markets, Jaafar added, cannot be opened without lowering production costs while at the same time guaranteeing international standards.

Head of programs at the Agriculture Ministry Majida Musheik echoed Jaafar grievances, adding that local demand is not sufficient for the 40,000 tons of olive oil produced by Lebanon each year.

Musheik said the ministry has finalized a tender to provide cooperatives with olive harvesting machines to help lower costs. “But administrative barriers are behind delays in providing farmers with this equipment,” she added.

Labor costs amounts to 52 percent of olive production costs, she estimated.

But in Hermel many farmers say they have already given up on government initiatives to shore up the olive oil sector.

“I decided to start cutting down the olive trees this year, and I will cut them all if I fail to sell the stacked oil,” Allam says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 29, 2012, on page 4.




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