Lebanese potato grower Michel Rahme has high hopes for a specific new variety. "Varietal renewal is imminent. We want a potato that delivers higher yields in the field, is versatile in the kitchen, and can throw open other markets' doors. We think we've found that in Maverick," he begins.
They hope to increase returns with the new Maverick variety, which can reach 60 tons
In 2021, Lebanon produced 660,000 tons of potatoes. More than the 510,000 tons in neighboring Israel, but ten times less than in the Netherlands (6,675,000 tons), according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) figures. With 37,000 tons of potatoes - only five percent of the total - Lebanon is not yet very export-oriented. Unlike Israel (165,000 tons; 32%) or the Netherlands (2,364,000 tons; 35%). Most Lebanese potatoes remain in the country for local consumption.
Considering Lebanon and the Netherlands populations and import figures (neither’s imports and exports differ much), we can calculate average consumption. Unsurprisingly, the potato country, the Netherlands, takes the crown: there, people eat, on average, three times as many potatoes as in Lebanon.
In 2021, potato production in Lebanon amounted to 660,000 tons
Export market opportunities
Nonetheless, for a grower and exporter like Michel - also a mountain village in northern Lebanon's mayor and director of one of the regional growers' associations (FaV Lebanon) - that is not such bad news. After all, it points to European export opportunities, especially considering Israel has found a market niche on the European continent with its early potatoes. There are more local market opportunities, too, since consumption is still relatively low.
Nasr Rahme, a family business, was founded in 1987 and cultivates potatoes on 160 hectares and onions on 30. "Our potatoes yield an average of 40 tons per hectare, but we hope to increase that with the new Maverick variety, which achieves 60 tons. Of our onions, we harvest 60 to 70 tons per hectare."
In potato cultivation, the focus has traditionally been on Spunta, and subsequently also on varieties such as Agria, Everest and Fabula
Potatoes and onions
Onions account for 20% of Nasr Rahme's revenue. "We grow the yellow Oscar variety, which we sow in February/March and harvest in September. We mostly market it locally as Jordan becomes increasingly self-sufficient. But we hope to soon export to Libya, where there's good demand and prices. Not only would there be opportunities for our onions, but other Lebanese products such as apples, cherries, avocados, and grapes can also find space on the Libyan market. Its climate means the cultivation of those products isn't highly developed," says Michel.
From Spunta to Maverick
Potato cultivation traditionally focused on Spunta, then varieties like Agria, Everest, and Fabula. "The Lebanese market primarily takes up varieties for the french fry industry. Spunta was popular for a long time. It performs very well fresh but with slightly poorer results from storage. The Lebanese potato sector has been having a rough time for the past five, six years. Hopefully, with its versatility as a ware and chips potato and good storage quality, the Maverick can bring about a turnaround in the local market. And with the CBI's help, we can also sell this variety in some export markets. It's not the only new variety in our fields, but it is the most promising."
Michel Rahme currently has contacts in the EU and we would like to discuss with several buyers
According to Michel, the Lebanese market prefers elongated, oval, white-fleshed potatoes suited to the fries industry. Over 80% of Maverick, a variety from Ireland's IPM Potato Group, is size 60+. "Last year, this multipurpose potato did very well in the local market," he says.
Cheap Syrian product
The problems facing the Lebanese potato market for several years, says Michel, has much to do with the large supply of cheap product smuggled in from neighboring Syria. "It's smuggling; our government only allows potato imports in February and March. Syrian growers want U.S. dollars, so they focus on exports. Nearby Lebanon is the easiest destination, also because the Syrian product sells for ten to 15 cents per kilogram less than the local product. Lebanese growers charge an average of 35 cents per kilo. That's not nothing, but we have significant cultivation costs due to high energy and transportation costs."
The potatoes are harvested in July and November
Two harvests per year
Nasr Rahme grows potatoes in the northern Bekaa Valley and achieves two harvests per year. In mid-July, potatoes planted in late February are grubbed; in November, that which was planted in July. "We know we must lower our cultivation and processing costs because international market prices won't rise much more. We can do that by increasing average yields - we're pinning our hopes on the Maverick for that - but also by more efficient irrigation and fertilization and more automation in the field and packing facility," explains Rahme.
He irrigates using sprinklers with water pumped from wells. "But both spraying and pumping the water consume a lot of energy. We've tried drip irrigation without success. Climate change may also become an issue for us because the hotter the summers, the more we must irrigate and the more crop treatments we must use."
Michel also hopes to implement more automation in his packing plant. "Labor is getting scarcer. There are many Syrian refugees in Lebanon, but with the financial support they get from the international community, they don't need to work. In fact, some of them rent land to grow their own vegetables, thus pushing up land prices for Lebanese growers. We're, therefore, forced to invest in more efficient post harvesting," he explains.
Looking to Europe
Until now, the local and Gulf State markets have been Lebanese markets' only sales outlets. "In the Gulf region, there's now a lot of competition from Egypt and Pakistan, which can supply cheap potatoes almost year-round. Turkey and Syria are also present there. So we're looking for other markets. We're currently in contact with Carrefour in the EU and want to engage with several buyers. Our GLOBALG.A.P. certification and being able to supply nice volumes - along with our own cultivation, we source from contract growers, too - should help with that."
Early this year, Nasr Rahme participated in Fruit Logistica, and they will be at Fruit Attraction in October. "Trade shows like these let us make our name known to buyers in that region and beyond. We can build a good reputation too, because customers see we're concerned with product and service quality. Hopefully, we can make new contacts there, not only among Mediterranean region buyers but also from Eastern and Northern Europe," Michel concludes.
You can find Nasr Rahme at the upcoming Fruit Attraction in Madrid in Hall 1, stand 1C10.