AQOURA / BROUMMANA, Lebanon: “You see all of these?” Paul Akl asked, clasping in his hand a dark red apple covered in rough brown blemishes.
“Customers run away when they see this, and that means hundreds of kilos of my apples are worthless.” Cast against Aqoura’s dramatic mountains that rise hundreds of meters form the valley bellow, scores of apple crates, freshly picked by laborers, pile up. But Akl, an apple farmer by inheritance, said many have nowhere to go.
“When you’re about to lose your livelihood, you’d be surprised what ideas come into your mind,” he told The Daily Star, standing beside the 20-kilogram crates.
Like many other Lebanese apple farmers, Akl has been struggling with crop wastage, an issue locally known as the “apple crisis.” The problem has its roots in a low value attributed to many of the apple species that are grown, aged farming methods, the war in Syria, the effects of climate change and a lack of state support for the sector.
A change in winter snow cover from more than 10 meters in previous years, to about a fifth of that now, was a major cause of the trouble, Akl said. “When the trees are covered by snow for four months, the number of diseases drops by 70 percent. No snow? More diseases, more wasted apples, more pesticides needed and more costs on the farmer that he will never make back.”
Farmers’ grievances have been compounded since the start of the Syrian civil war, with the subsequent closure of land trade routes that pass through Syria to Jordan and extend to the Gulf. While the recent reopening of the Nassib border crossing between Jordan and Syria will certainly be music to many farmers’ ears, it is unclear when regular trade will resume through the crossing due to political wrangling over the issue in Beirut.
For now, their produce remains hemmed in, with roughly 40 percent going to waste each year and that’s where people like Nassim Njeim come in.
The 28-year-old agricultural engineer has for two years been producing cider from the fruits the farmers can’t otherwise sell.
“My job is literally to find solutions to food waste,” Njeim told The Daily Star, sitting in his production facility in Broummana in Metn amid bottles bearing his brand name: Caesar Cider. “I was in South Africa a couple years ago and tried cider, and it was the first year we heard of the apple crisis in Lebanon, so I made the link,” he said. He went on to study its production in Germany and in late 2016, he returned to Lebanon “just to produce cider.”
“I studied the local value chain and started making the cider, working with an apple cooperative in Bsharri. It took me a year to perfect it,” he said, owing to the fact he had to continue his day job working in rural development.
Then, an accelerator project by the British Embassy, which he said gave him $20,000 dollars, allowed him to spend more time on producing the cider, which he now works on full time.
As the business grows, Njeim said that roughly 170 farmers are benefiting from it. Now, he has plans to scale up: Recently he began to acquire some of the juice he uses from Akl’s lands in Aqoura.
“There’s no doubt that I benefit from Nassim,” Akl said, pouring a glass of his self-produced apple juice that he insists must be pressed, and not blended, to obtain the best flavor.
“Firstly, he takes juice from me to make the cider, and we’re now working on a study to scale up [production] to make a factory, so we can reduce the cost of the juice,” he said. Akl added that there was practically no demand for small, blemished or otherwise unwanted apples. As a result, “When someone comes and develops something new and creative, you just have to support it.”
Just down the road from Akl’s farm, Elsa El Hachem, a sociology lecturer at the Lebanese University, is brewing the apples into something a little boozier than the low-alcohol cider. “We can’t sell this stuff in normal shops,” she told The Daily Star, holding a bottle of arak, the traditional anise-flavored Levantine drink that is usually made from grapes. “It’s about 60 percent alcohol, which is fine to sell at farmers markets, but we’re working on a lower alcohol level version,” she said.
Similarly to Akl, Hachem’s family has apple orchards and recalls having to deal with abysmally low per-crate prices of about $4 in previous years. “Every year I hear my family complains about the low prices this year included. Rather than selling them, we’ve stored them in fridges to use partly [for Arak production]” she said.
She named her apple arak Ashtarout, after the turbulent love story of the Phoenician god Adonis and moon goddess Ashtarout associated with fertility, sexuality and war that is said to have unfolded in the same valley her apples are grown, the Adonis Valley.
Akl also produces arak, alongside a dazzling array of apple-based products from the ugly ducklings of his crop, such as jam, chips, crackers, dried fruit sweets and even an apple and pistachio stuffed chocolate. “As you can see, I’m obsessed with apples,” he said with a smile. “This is our project, so the apples and the farmers don’t disappear.”
This article was amended on Saturday, October 27 2018
A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to Elsa El Hachem as a psychology lecturer. She is a sociology lecturer. The Daily Star regrets this error.