The Lebanese organic market has dropped since the latest crises, yet there are opportunities for organic growers thanks to Lebanon's proximity to a relatively large, wealthy purchasing base in the Gulf states. Agreen Organics exports a wide range of organic products, fresh or processed, plant or animal, and offers small-scale Lebanese growers an outlet for their organic produce.
Rudolph Elias in a new walnut orchard
We accompanied CEO Rudolph Elias on a visit to an organic walnut, pecan, and almond grower. This grower used to cultivate grain and some tomatoes and cucumbers on his seven-hectare plot in Taybeh, a village near Baalbek, a famous archaeological site known for its Roman ruins.
Focus on high-value crops
"Those crops are, however, not financially interesting. Too much enters the market simultaneously, so prices don't reach high levels. Yet it's difficult to convince the many growers in the fertile Bekaa Valley to switch to higher-value crops, such as grapes or, in the case of this grower, nuts. The local mentality is still one of a quick return on investment. Thinking long term, even though it's ultimately much more profitable, is too big a step for many," begins Rudolph.
Organic apples under net
The nut grower's plants are two years old and still need five years to come into full production. "Or maybe four. They're growing faster and better than expected. The walnuts are of the Chandler variety, the almonds of a local variety. The plot isn't that big. That's because in Lebanon, the land is passed down from generation to generation for centuries, and those families are large. So the plots get smaller and smaller. And to spread the risk, this grower has opted for three crops instead of one, even though his farm isn't particularly large."
Good demand for organic in the Middle East
Agreen Organics uses no crop protection products, preferring to enrich its soil with green manures. The water on the nut grower's plot is pumped and meets organic specifications. "But the whole Bekaa Valley doesn't have the same amount of water, nor is it as pure as here. We always install solar panels to meet our electricity needs," says Rudolph.
Container with apples in crates for Middle East
Agreen Organics affiliated growers have a total of around 1,000 hectares. They cultivate vegetables, and mainly apples, olives, cherries, and grapes. "We have the necessary certificates for our fresh and processed products. We partner with growers as well as other organic organizations in the Mediterranean region. Besides the Gulf States, our markets include Egypt, Greece, and a few other European countries. Despite the reduced purchasing power, organic markets' demand still outdoes its supply."
Adding more value to already valuable organic farming
Adding value to fresh organic nuts means even greater profit margins are reached on this already high-value product. "We shell the walnuts, pecans, and almonds and dry roast them using sophisticated machines. Not everyone masters this process as well as we do," explains Rudolph.
He explains that the nuts are marketed in four ways: unshelled, shelled, roasted, and finally, somewhat surprisingly, unripened. The roasted nuts can also be salted or unsalted and even have other flavors, such as smoked or paprika-flavored. As for the green product - a mode of nut consumption unknown in Europe - the Agreen Organics' CEO explains one of the urban legends on its origins:
Refrigerated container at the loading docks of the packing station
When Lebanon was part of the Ottoman Empire, the rural population had to give part of the harvest as tax. To partially evade that, they began eating their crops when they were not yet fully ripe. They could do so with, say, fruit but also with wheat and almonds. The still green wheat was roasted in the fields and is still a dish in countries like Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. Freekeh - that's what this product is called - is 25% higher in protein and is more nutritious than ripe wheat. So, it is also considered a superfood.
As for almonds, Lebanon has two seasons: the first harvest occurs when the nuts are still green, and the second when they ripened. The green almonds are marketed unshelled to be consumed as is. Eating this product is quite an experience for Lebanese consumers. Some even sprinkle them with a bit of salt before consuming them.
Lebanon's almond consumption is considerable, but the country is not self-sufficient. Many of the nuts are imported fresh and then roasted in one of the multiple country's processing centers. Nevertheless, the fresh consumption share is increasing for two reasons. Firstly, raw almonds are healthier, and secondly, the decline in household purchasing power plays a big role. "Some people buy the almonds raw and then roast them at home. That's cheaper. Regarding the health aspect, I want to point out that our high-tech dry roasting method results in a final product that's as healthy as the raw almonds, and we have the tests to prove that," Rudolph concludes.