Voices from the field: Georgette, farmer in Akkar, Lebanon

Georgette comes home and lays out various types of cheese and cold drinks from the farm bearing her name. In the village of Halba, a long-standing farming tradition has been handed down from generation to generation, the art of making dairy products and by-products to provide essential dietary protein. Laban yoghurt drink, labneh yoghurt cheese, halloumi cheese and chanklish cheese are now sold throughout the region and in major cities like Tripoli, Saida and Beirut.

But her table has not always been so well stocked.

Success story

Following an assessment in 2006, in the wake of the devastation caused by war, emergency projects were finalized in record time and Lebanon received 45 million US dollars for reconstruction. During the first two years, a review of horticulture and livestock projects targeting the south identified further needs in the agricultural sector.

To meet these needs, the Lebanese Government requested FAO assistance for the dairy sector, which is so crucial to this region famed for its excellent cheeses. This resulted in the Lebanon Recovery Fund (LRF)–FAO Dairy Project Saved Assets and Sustained Livelihoods of Smallholders in Lebanon, funded by the Italian Development Cooperation Agency. FAO field surveys had identified the real needs of farmers in an area stretching from West Bekaa (town of Rashaya) to northern Lebanon (Akkar) and including the many villages in the Bekaa valley, around the city of Zahle, the Roman city of Baalbek and Hermel.

Milk prices detrimental to farmers

The conclusions of a six-month consultation with thousands of farmers came as a shock: milk prices were too low and hygiene conditions were hazardous to both small farmers and consumers.

Prior to the project, most farmers transported their milk in unsuitable vehicles or vans exposed to the elements. As they were unable to keep the milk from spoiling, they were forced to sell it off cheaply at the slightest complaint from the factory, given that the milk would last for only four hours after milking. Moreover, these small farmers had virtually no bargaining power because three-quarters had fewer than 15 cows (with two-thirds owning 1­–6 cows).

To harmonize a response to this situation, the project team began by grouping farmers into cooperatives with the proviso that all members should live in the village and be local dairy farmers. The most motivated farmers were trained in food hygiene and safety and were provided with the necessary equipment.

Despite this good start, milk traders continued to dictate the terms and could impose the price they wished because they had a monopoly. So, after improving farmers’ working conditions, it was essential to reorganize milk collection. To boost dairy associations’ bargaining power over milk prices, the project provided collection centres with refrigerated trucks to aid distribution. Women in small-scale dairies were initiated in the manufacture and marketing of traditional dairy products in compliance with the new hygiene standards.

The cooperatives have equipped not only farmers like Georgette but also more than 80% of milk traders and hawkers who have now become part of the FAO project.

Everything is better now

Poor farmers in this region now have milk tanks, stainless steel milk cans, milking machines and inspection equipment. Incoming milk is analysed in the laboratory to test its pH, water and fat content and its quality before being poured from the cans into tanks for storage. Lastly, it is pumped into refrigerated milk tankers for transport to factories, where it is processed into dairy products.

“We used to work up to 20 hours a day just to earn enough money to survive and to start all over again the next day. We would sell our raw milk to the factories, which set the price to suit themselves. Always very low. Sometimes it brought us to tears. But the FAO project has changed all that. Now we are able to send our children to the local school and see them grow up. We can no longer keep up with demand from surrounding towns and the capital. Through word of mouth, people come from far and wide to buy our cheeses”, says Georgette, adding: “Pascal can’t wait to get rid of the pick-up truck which is no longer able to negotiate the narrow, snow-covered mountain roads. If he is not home by dark, I start praying. We would like to buy a refrigerated truck for milk distribution. This would allow him to travel around the region safely, even as far as Beirut.”

 

Credit: Nasser Brahimi

09/12/2014