23 Jan 2018
Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
Sustainable Food and Agriculture

When the war in neighboring Syria caused the closure of Lebanon’s export routes and cut off access to international markets, an apple crisis ensued. Many farms folded, but Marie Nahas and her family refused to give up. While searching for a strategy to save their orchard, they discovered a collaborative, eco-friendly approach that married traditional knowledge with modern research.

“Apple trees take seven years to start showing fruits,” Nahas says. “Our trees were just seven years old when the apple crisis occurred.” In 2015, the family’s orchard had finally begun bearing the long-awaited fruits of their labor. But due to the turmoil caused by the Syrian War, fruit and vegetable markets closed. The Nahas family would not have a chance to sell their crop that year.  

“The Syrian war greatly affected Lebanese exports, specifically fruits and vegetables that were intended for export to Arab markets,” Khaled Sleem, Production Manager at Native Nurseries explains, “Almost all these exports required transport via land through Syria, and these routes closed completely.”

Lebanon was left with an excess of apples intended for export – and no policies in place to protect the farmers. The country continued to import apples from other countries while local farmers suffered the loss. “The government didn’t have a long-term strategy in place and didn’t execute fair deals to export Lebanese products,” Nahas adds. So, farmers took to the streets. “Some cut their apple trees down and threw apples in the main roads to bring attention to the issue,” she explains.

Nahas’ family was distraught but they would not be defeated. In this moment of crisis, “we saw an opportunity,” she says. “We decided to keep our 1,800 apple trees. We knew there would be a demand again in the future.” And when that day came, the Nahas family wanted to be ready.

Fertile soil for a better future:

Just as mineral-rich soil, proper technique, and environmental factors can create the ideal conditions needed to produce a fruitful harvest, the Nahas family possessed some of the key ingredients to devise a solution: agricultural knowledge, financial experience, and determination.

We are a farming family,” Nahas explains. “My parents have been farming for more than 30 years.” Her father’s fortitude and agricultural knowledge provided a solid foundation. And Nahas contributed a fresh perspective and global experience. “I have an MBA in international business and I was working as a finance specialist,” she says. Nahas had spent many years living and working abroad – from conducting financial analyses for farms in France to working with banking and financial institutions in Canada. “I knew how to improve processes, reduce costs, and identify ways to improve.” So when the crisis hit home, Nahas headed back to Lebanon to help her family.  

“Farming is part of me. It was always with me wherever I went,” she says. “But when I worked in finance, I sat in a cubicle. I needed to get back to nature and my family.” So she returned to her roots – the family farm in the Bekaa (also spelled Beqaa) Valley, the most abundant agricultural region in the country – with a decade of financial experience and a desire to save the farm.

Planting the seeds:

Nahas got to work, harnessing her finance knowledge and researching new approaches to agriculture. “We conducted a market study and discovered that many people want products that are pesticide-free,” she says. She also asked for advice from experts, including consultants from Europe and experts in agroecology.

“I visited the Nahas farm with Paul Wojtkowski, an expert on agroecology,” Sleem says. “We recommended some agroecological solutions to increase profits for the farm. One recommendation was to plant some annual ‘companion’ crops that wouldn’t require additional monetary input and could utilize the same drip irrigation system used for the apples. We also recommended introducing animals for pest management – chickens to eat harmful insects and geese and ducks to minimize weeds, while naturally fertilizing the land and generating money from egg and meat production.”

When agroecology expert insight merged with Nahas’ financial knowledge and her father’s farming experience, a promising blueprint with eco-conscious applications and multiple income streams began to emerge. They would no longer depend on one product. Should crisis come again, the Nahas family would be better prepared with a wider range of offerings. Basma Agricultural Products was born.  

“Our new strategy is to apply agroecology methods and reduce our cost of production so we can become competitive in the European market,” Nahas shares. The farm is transitioning from monocropping to multicropping — adding crops that are complementary to apples in order to improve the soil and yield. “Crops like beans, raspberries, and honeydew act as natural fertilizers, and the leaves and shade they provide can hinder harmful weeds from growing,” she explains. The diversity of crops creates a diversity of income streams, making the business less dependent on a sole product in the event of future crises. The Nahas family are no longer putting all of their proverbial eggs in one basket. In fact, even their birds are more diverse these days. “We now have a special kind of duck that eats the insects that could otherwise damage our crops,” Nahas says.

Their efforts don’t stop there. “We’re working on Global GAP certification,” she explains. “We test the water and crops periodically, in order to ensure there are no residual herbicides. We apply health and safety practices. We do in-house composting and shred residual wood to use as mulch under the trees, so it reduces soil temperature and the consumption of water.”

The family’s vision goes beyond the boundaries of their farm fence. In addition to agricultural and environmental efforts, they are actively working to make positive contributions to their community. “We hire 40-50 refugees per year to work on our farm,” Nahas says. “When refugee children arrive, we don’t allow them to work; we connect them to local NGOs.”

Harvesting the fruits:

Creating connections and improving the lives of others inspire Nahas and her family to continue learning and growing. In turn, they are inspiring other farmers to think outside the box, too. “We collaborate with women’s cooperatives that help prepare the agro-food we sell,” she says. “And we organize agrotourism experiences that benefit visitors and local farmers alike.” Thanks to the creativity and vision of the Nahas family, in 2016 the Bekaa Valley had its first collaborative agrotourism event. “We invited volunteers to help local farmers in the region,” Nahas says. “We served a traditional Lebanese breakfast with traditional music. Then volunteers went out and assisted local farmers with harvesting.”

Looking toward the next season:

The Nahas family are finding success with a collaborative, innovative approach that prioritizes people, the planet, and economic opportunities. But true to the life of a farmer, their work is never done.

“Before the crisis, we were only selling locally to brokers,” Nahas explains. “We didn’t have to think about changing our strategy. But running the farm isn’t just about growing crops. Now, we must focus on quality, costs, and sustainability to compete in a global market.”

In order to stay afloat, the farm must continuously find ways to improve their products and reduce costs. “Our costs are currently too high to be competitive globally. Adding crops helps lower the money spent on fertilizers. Switching from fuel to solar, building a smart irrigation system, and establishing our own packaging center would bring expenses down significantly.”  

But for a small family-run operation, executing these big changes is costly. Despite the obstacles, the Nahas family continue to push forward, consciously developing their farm to be more efficient, collaborative, and eco-friendly.

“In Arabic,” Nahas says, “Basma means ‘a smile’.” With their dedication, innovative approach, and neighborly attitude, the Nahas family are indeed bringing smiles back to the Bekaa Valley and beyond.


Images: Courtesy of Basma Agricultural Products.

In addition to being a storyteller for The Switchers, Sunny is a Lonely Planet Local, a freelance writer, and the Founder of FROLIQ.Sunny Fitzgerald
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