BEIRUT: The government needs to take some practical measures to shore up Lebanon’s ailing apple production, the farmers’ association said Tuesday as north Lebanon growers complained about their inability to sell their produce at reasonable prices.
“The government has to implement a law issued in 1994 which calls for the establishment of an agricultural development bank.
“Such a bank would help provide loans to apple farmers, allowing them to preserve produce in refrigerators and save them from having to sell it at despicable prices,” said Antoine Howayek, head of the farmers’ association.
Howayek explained that the Association of Banks in Lebanon and some bank owners had long opposed the establishment of such a bank.
“Some bank owners do not have an interest in establishing the agricultural development bank because they want farmers to take loans from their own banks,” he said.
However, he added, it is well known that commercial banks are not capable of giving the same facilities given by the agricultural development bank to farmers.
“Commercial banks require collateral as guarantees, while the agricultural development bank accepts the farmers’ produce as a guarantee for instance,” he said.
Howayek added that farmers tended to sell their produce all at once and at any price because they did not have the financial capacity to store their produce in refrigerators, and this gives merchants more control over prices.
“I have to sell my whole produce because I can’t afford to pay LL30,00 per box of apple to store it in a refrigerator,” said Anwar Frangieh, an apple producer from Zghorta.
Frangieh said that he did not get enough profit from selling his produce because three or four merchants bought all the apples, and they were the ones who controlled the price.
“I sell a kilo of apples for LL1,500, while I should be selling it minimum at LL2,000 for me to generate enough profit that would cover my expenses,” he said.
Apple growers in Akkar have also argued that the government ought to subsidize pesticides, while securing an internal and external market for their produce.
“We are very much worried about the future of apple growing, which is considered to be a source of living for most people in Akkar,” Mohamed Kawas told the National News Agency Tuesday, adding that the government was not offering the required support.
“We usually wait eagerly for the apple season, while borrowing money to buy our pesticides, but then we get disappointed by the greed of merchants, who buy the whole produce at very low prices that do not help in covering our expenses,” he said.
Today, farmers are hoping that official efforts to market their apples in Egypt and Russia will be increased and that clear mechanisms will be put in place to ensure that farmers receive fair prices before the winter season.
“The agriculture minister promised to open new export markets to Russia and Algeria and we are still waiting for this to happen,” said Anwar Fakhri, head of the farmers’ association in Bsharri.
Fakhri explained that farmers were not very aware about markets abroad, which prompted them to sell their apples at any price.
“We want the agriculture minister to go on television and to inform all the farmers that the apple produce can be exported to other markets for growers to avoid selling their products at very low prices,” he said.
Fakhri said that Lebanon exported 70 percent of its apple produce to Egypt. “But merchants pretend that they are not able to export much of the products to Egypt because of the difficult situation there,” he said.
He added that Lebanese farmers had also lost a very important market in Iraq due to the security situation there.
Farmers interviewed by The Daily Star have also complained about Agri Plus, a program established by the Investment Development Authority in Lebanon (IDAL) and announced by the Cabinet to promote the Lebanese agricultural sector.
One of the objectives of Agri Plus is to grant financial incentives to farmers, exporters, agricultural cooperatives and traders who contribute to increasing the volume of exports by improving product quality and packaging standards.
It came into effect when IDAL’s Export Plus program reached its expiry date.
“This program benefits mostly merchants and not farmers,” Frangieh said.
Anwar added: “The merchant benefits from the low prices that they impose on farmers in addition to the incentives they receive from IDAL and they do not pay the farmer’s share.”
IDAL President Nabil Itani told The Daily Star that the aim was for Agri Plus to provide support to farmers as well.
“The program helps the merchant, so that he buys his produce from farmers,” he said.
“In 2009, Export Plus stopped and we got a lot of complaints from farmers [who wanted us] to reactivate it, which means that they are benefitting from it,” he added.
Itani said it was possible that farmers were complaining nowadays as a result of Agri Plus’ having delayed its payment to merchants, due to the lack of money from the Finance Ministry.
He added that he would be calling soon for a meeting for merchants to find out what IDAL can do to help solve these issues.