Every two days, Karl Karam and his fellow architect Jihad Farah drive two hours from the Lebanese coast to a field of purple flowers in the Bekaa Valley, near the border with Syria.
The friends have traded their leaders for shovels and turned to saffron cultivation as construction projects dwindle amid an economic collapse that has forced many Lebanese out of the country.
âWe didn’t want to leave Lebanon because we love this country,â said Mr. Farah, 40, picking one of the saffron flowers from which the spice is derived.
âWe were thinking about ways to survive here. Next thing we know, we woke up at 6 a.m. and picked some flowers until the sun went down.
Their effort highlights the untapped potential of local agriculture and industry, which has been largely overlooked by the state.
Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world, yet only a handful of farmers cultivate it in Lebanon. Most of them are in the lawless Baalbek-Hermel governorate, an area known primarily for organized crime, poverty and cannabis cultivation.
The architects who became saffron producers started working on their project last December and rented 7,000 square meters of land in the Bekaa Valley in June.
The first time they visited the Hizzine village site in their Mini Cooper convertible, the owner was skeptical.
âHe told us later that he thought that we, the townspeople, would not stay two hours in the Bekaa. But we persevered and now we are here every morning even before the workers, âMr. Farah said.
Hizzine is located halfway between Brital, a town known for its auto thefts and blood feuds, and the Lebanese drug capital, Baalbek, also a stronghold of the armed group Hezbollah.
Mr. Farah recalled spending 40 minutes in front of a cannabis field after a cannabis field to arrive at the farm.
Purple flowers filled the site earlier this month and they recently completed their first harvest with the help of girls from neighboring villages who arrived early each morning to pick the flowers.
Hamida, 16, said they filled up to 10 baskets a day.
âI love working with saffron,â the Syrian teenager said. âIt is rare and delicate work.
After the flowers are harvested, farmers should gently extract the three stigmas – three orange filaments ending in a red tip that are nestled inside the petals. The quality largely depends on the precision of the cut and its proximity to the coveted red tip.
Mr Karam, 34, said about 200,000 to 250,000 flowers are needed for a kilogram of saffron. He expected the farm’s first harvest to be just under half a kilo.
Saffron crocuses only flower once a year, but the yield increases each year as the plants propagate more bulbs. Tehran is the world’s largest exporter of saffron, accounting for over 90 percent of the supply.
As the Lebanese economy began to collapse at the end of 2019, the number of tourists also declined and agricultural exports became a source of scarce foreign exchange.
Mr Karam, who met Mr Farah during the mass anti-government protests that erupted in late 2019, believes their saffron project is a chance to challenge the status quo.
âThis is a nation that needs to change and can be productive,â he said in perfect English, his fingers stained with the dirt of picking flowers.
“The whole revolution [the protests] happened because of this question: why is Lebanon in crisis when we have all the capacities to shine?
Hassan Makhlouf, professor of natural sciences at the Lebanese University who has worked on the cultivation of saffron for almost two decades, says that the high quality of Lebanese saffron makes it a prime candidate for export to the United States and the Gulf, two great consumers of spice.
âIf we could sell a single tonne of saffron overseas, it would be worth several million dollars. It’s a lot of money for farmers, âhe said.
Mr. Makhlouf introduced saffron cultivation in Lebanon in the late 1990s, after 15 years of civil war, as a way to provide farmers with alternatives to planting cannabis.
âAt the time, even the Ministry of Agriculture did not believe in this project,â he said.
But in 1999, the ministry entrusted Mr. Makhlouf with its initiative to replace medicinal cultures with legal alternatives.
He distributed 30,000 saffron crocuses to 80 cannabis growers in Baalbek-Hermel governorate, of whom only five or six are still growing.
âIt is difficult to train farmers in the cultivation of saffron; it is a delicate harvest which requires patience. Many farmers expected immediate profit, which is not possible, âhe said.
Despite the lack of state support and the economic collapse, Mr. Makhlouf is optimistic that Mr. Karam and Mr. Farah’s project will encourage others to invest in local agriculture.
“I think people like Karl and Jihad can breathe new life into the saffron cultivation in Lebanon.”
A thousand square meters of land can produce up to 1 kg of spice, which can fetch up to $ 2,000 / kg at retail price in Lebanon, Makhlouf said.
If exported, saffron can sell for up to $ 10,000 / kg, he said.
In either case, he said, growing saffron is much more lucrative than cannabis: 1,000 square meters of cannabis plantation would yield 4kg of the drug, which would sell for around $ 400 in total.
“It’s nothing in comparison, but the state has been absent from Bekaa for years, so everyone is planting cannabis,” Makhlouf said.
Update: November 20, 2021, 5:58 am