Olive trees are arguably as entrenched in Lebanon’s identity as its cedars. The country is home to 16 olive trees known as the Sisters, or the Olive Trees of Noah, which are among the oldest olive trees in the world. Located in Bcheale, in northern Lebanon, these olive trees are said to be 6,000 years old, according to local folklore.
Historically, Lebanese growers have cherished their olive trees and counted olive oil among their most prized possessions, taking quantities of it with them when forced to leave their homes during the war. This esteem has not faded over time. To date, the olive-picking season is much anticipated, with many families gathering annually for olive harvesting.
Rooted in the long tradition of olive farming in Lebanon, the modern olive oil industry is thriving—but it is not without its complexities and challenges.
The facts, please
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Lebanon has a total planted area of 270,000 hectares; olive trees constitute 20 percent of that area, or around 54,000 hectares.
There are over 100,000 commercial olive tree growers in Lebanon, according to Mariam Eid, who is responsible for overseeing the olive oil division at the Ministry of Agriculture’s agro-industries department.
According to Roland Andary, value chain manager at USAID’s Lebanon Industry Value Chain Development (LIVCD) project, more than 80 percent of olives grown in Lebanon are used for the production of olive oil, with the rest consumed as table olives.
As such, it is no surprise that the olive oil industry is considered among the most significant agro-industries in Lebanon. “You cannot talk about agro-industry in Lebanon without talking about olive oil, especially since it covers this much space, employs a big number of people, and has so many challenges,” says Andary.
The olive growers
According to those interviewed, the majority of olive plots in Lebanon are owned by small-scale farmers with around two to three hectares of trees. While many of these farmers contract their land to traders who handle the olive harvest and process the oil, there are others who still work their own land.
Working on such a small scale drives up the cost of production, which in turn increases the price of Lebanese olive oil, explains Eid, adding that other expenses such as electricity and labor also impact production costs. This makes Lebanese olive oil expensive when compared to olive oil production elsewhere, for example, a 20-liter container of olive oil costs an average of $150 when bought directly from the grower.
“The price of Lebanese olive oil is high, which makes it hard to sell. But this is because the cost of production is high, starting with the price of the land to the salary of the farmer. So we are working to reduce the price through the olive picking machines we distribute, or the benefits we are offering cooperatives,” explains Andary.
Eid says the Ministry of Agriculture encouraged growers to come together to form cooperatives or unions of cooperatives, so that they can divide expenses among themselves and also be able to pool their olives together and supply large quantities when asked.
Oléa, the growers’ cooperative of Lebaa and its neighboring villages in south Lebanon, has benefited from both these initiatives, receiving assistance from the ministry and the LIVCD program as well. “As a collective, USAID provided us with automatic harvest equipment—they paid for 70 percent of it and we paid the rest—and they give us technical support. In turn, I rent out the equipment to growers for a reasonable fee of $20 per day. This helps reduce the cost of olive oil production, since labor is expensive in Lebanon,” says Denise Tegho, president of the cooperative, explaining that three people working the machine can harvest a field that would take 20 people twice as much time if harvesting by hand. Tegho also explains that as a cooperative combining their small quantities of olives together, they were able to develop their own brand of olive oil and sell in bulk when needed.
The holy grail of olive oil
Because Lebanon is small, its olive oil production is relatively low compared to other countries. Lebanon cannot hope to compete with mass producers such as Italy, Spain, Tunisia, or Greece. Instead, those interviewed for this article said that Lebanon should focus on producing high-value products like extra-virgin olive oil (a classification of olive oil which has less than 0.8 percent of fatty acid in it) or premium extra-virgin olive oil (which must contain less than 0.3 percent fatty acid).
However, according to Eid, extra-virgin olive oil accounts for less than a quarter of Lebanon’s production. “The grower and the mills don’t know any better, and we’re trying to develop training programs for that. The challenge is to get the grower to change his traditional ways,” says Eid.
Improving the quality of olive oil starts with the growers, and therefore, many programs, including the LIVCD program, offer training for growers on how to take care of their trees to improve yield. The program also provides training on post-harvesting techniques. These include processing olives on the day they were harvested because olives start to deteriorate the moment they are picked.
The quality of mills for extracting olive oil is another area that can negatively impact quality. Traditional presses, which use grindstones in an open tub to mill olives, are still common in Lebanon. However, it is almost impossible to produce a high-quality oil with such presses, because the tubs do not have covers, which exposes the oil to oxidation.
Also, in traditional mills, the discs used to press the olives are made from hemp—as opposed to synthetic fibers in modern mills—which is difficult to clean. If the mills are not cleaned well between each press, the olive residue from the previous press begins to ferment and leaves a bad flavor.
Eid explains that the Ministry of Agriculture has no control over the quality of olive oil produced, because its jurisdiction is over food safety only. The ministry regulates the hygiene of the olive mills, setting guidelines for cleaning the presses between each extraction and general cleanliness.
Gradually, more mills have become aware of the limitations on quality imposed by traditional methods, and are embracing modern equipment. NGOs have donated or contributed to the purchase of up-to-date equipment, and mill operators have noted the difference.
Tegho explains that her family’s olive mill benefitted from the modern equipment provided by LIVCD. Her family was finally able to enter the export markets by producing extra-virgin olive oil, which had been impossible using a traditional mill.
Brands such as Zejd or the recently launched Adon & Myrrh are leading by example in their usage of modern mills and branding techniques to produce high-quality olive oil. These two brands also purchase olives from growers under strict quality-assurance guidelines, which incentiviz growers to follow best practices.
Developing a taste
However, it may be the Lebanese consumer that is affecting the quality of olive oil present in the market, having gotten used to oil pressed the traditional way. “Lebanese don’t yet have the culture of appreciating olive oil like they do with wine, which is more developed. This is why we have a challenge in convincing the customer to appreciate a good-quality extra-virgin olive oil, which is rather bitter. They want the sweet flavor of oxidized olive oil, but this does not have the health benefits associated with olive oil,” says Abed El Karim Al Rifai, head of the business development department at Litat Group, which owns Adon & Myrrh.
Youssef Fares, general manager of Olive Trade, which owns Zejd, believes consumer education is key. “We should have national campaigns to raise consumer awareness on what good-quality olive oil is. Otherwise, they are not reaping health benefits, and we are not helping the farmer improve the quality of their olives, nor the mills their methods of extraction,” he says, explaining that activities such as olive picking and visits to the mill—which he organizes—go a long way in developing a more modern olive oil culture in Lebanon.
A large percentage of Lebanese consumers, especially the older generation, buy their olive oil in 20-liter tanke from villagers based on personal relationships or referrals. But the younger generation, according to Fares, is more aware of the varieties of olive oil (like flavored olive oil) and their different qualities. They therefore tend to buy from specialty stores or ask more questions when buying from the source.
Growers themselves are now aware of the importance of marketing, and have become more aggressive in promoting their olive oil by participating in festivals and events where they can interact directly with the consumers, according to Oléa’s Tegho. Growers have been developing their own brands and labels, explains LIVCD’s Andary, hoping to sell a larger percentage of their production independently to get the best rates—otherwise, they would be forced to sell their olive oil to traders who buy at low rates.
Through these small but steady steps, Lebanon’s olive oil industry, which has been slow to modernize, is slowly transforming into a competitive industry that the Sisters would be proud of.