Southern Strawberries ‘Killed’ by Rumors and Weak Marketing
By: Kamel Jaber
Published Thursday, August 18, 2011
Three years ago, the strawberry planting season was added to the Southern Lebanese agricultural calendar. A group of plastic tents have spread in al-Maythana valley near the large town of Nabatiyeh to produce several tons of the red fruit, which today are facing difficulties selling in the market
In a plastic nursery located west of al-Jurmuq town, near the southern city of Nabatiyeh, one is seduced by the blood-red strawberries. There you see a nursery just across the horizon, which is the first of its kind in the South — both in terms of the size of its crops and the quality of its products. The greenhouse has been producing berries that weigh upwards of eighty grams. Today, instead of enticing shoppers and vendors, these fruits represent a burden to their owners, who now face difficulties in marketing them.
Marcel Aoun is a nursery owner and former head of the municipality of Aychieh. Aoun thought he achieved a breakthrough when he founded this nursery in “a region that has long suffered from Israeli occupation and dryness of the soil due to the lack of agricultural labor at the time.” He is now certain that “nothing is running.” Aoun blames issues with marketing the product: “We are facing difficulties in marketing because of a rumor that has spread in town that the big strawberry fruits are a result of hormone-injection. As a result, prices have declined considerably, especially the demand on larger strawberries.”
Seeking a good agricultural alternative, all that disappointment did not prevent the man from looking after what he termed “the project of his life.” And since he owns 45 dunums of fertile land in al-Jumruq, he chose to produce strawberries there as an alternative, and he was quite satisfied with the quality of his cultivation. “Most fruits weigh up to 80 grams per fruit and the rest range between twenty and fifty grams,” he says. And due to this good quality, “one seedling is producing one kilogram, which is the right amount for a successful cultivation,” he adds.
But what is the price of a seedling to begin with? Aoun answers: “Before planting it, a seedling is priced at about 750 Lebanese pounds and is imported from Europe. However, it is only suitable for one season of cultivation, and then it is removed and replaced by another.” As for why it is imported from Europe, Aoun says the European seed yield high quality fruits. He adds: “These seedlings could have been developed in Lebanon, but they need higher altitudes to grow and develop in cold weather. There were some attempts in the Baalbeck region but they did not result in big fruits that would cover the cost of production. Thus, its cultivation is a kind of risk because its production during the season will not reach a kilogram, like with the European variety.”
Aoun then talked about its cultivation, saying: “We plant it between October and November. We provide it with care and water it for 80 days. We wait for it to mature and then we pick it.” When the harvest is over, the honeymoon is over, and so begins Aoun’s suffering with marketing. The latter became a burden “after rumors spread in recent years that the strawberries grow and mature with the use of hormones.”
These "rumors led to a decline in the price of one kilogram to about 1,500 or 2,000 Lebanese pounds (about US$1) for the good type, so that we now face a difficult choice: either destroy the quantities we pick up or sell them at low prices.”
But, since destroying them is not an option, Aoun is forced to sell them at the price offered by traders “to cover labor costs,” mostly comprised of Syrian workers. He explains: “The loss of the Lebanese workforce because of the long years of occupation which emptied al-Maythana valley from farmers, especially those in Kafarrumman and al-Jumruq.” That is why “the Syrian workforce wages have increased. A Syrian worker now earns about US$500 a month. Those who work as day laborers do not accept less than 30,000 Lebanese pounds (US$20) per day,” says Aoun, “and the costs are likely to increase in the coming years.” Despite the difficulties, Aoun’s project produces half a ton each day.
Between his pride in al-Jumruq land’s production of strawberries and his feeling of injustice in regards to marketing and prices, Aoun reaffirms that he will continue with his pursuit, which he began many years ago in East Beirut. He recalls: “The prices of seedlings at the time were very low and we used to import them from Spain. Its types were superior to the French. It used to reach Lebanon in small plastic containers and in an advanced stage of growth.” Back then, “we used to sell one kilogram for about 17, 000 Lebanese pounds in some cases.” Even after prices declined, “we used to feel it was good. Meaning, in the past few years, some prices reached 7,000 to 8,000 Lebanese pounds.” Today, Aoun fondly remembers the past returns, “which made us feel what we did was useful. Now a tent’s production barely covers the labor cost, as well as that of the tent itself, which reaches over US$4,000.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.