This article was originally published by Progressive Dairyman and written by Calvin Covington.
When one thinks of the country of Lebanon, dairying is not the first thought that comes to mind. Most people associate Lebanon with its civil war, the suicide bombing of U.S. Marines back in 1983, the 2006 war and being right next door to the current conflict in Syria. Let me share with you another side of Lebanon, hidden from most people: its dairy industry.
Recently, I spent time in Lebanon as a volunteer with the Farmer-to-Farmer program, which is under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development. The program provides voluntary technical assistance to farmers, farm groups and agribusinesses in developing and transitional countries. Land O’Lakes oversees the Farmer-to-Farmer program in Lebanon. They arranged and coordinated my assignment, which was spent working with two plants to manufacture cheese. One plant had a dairy herd for its milk supply, and the other purchased farm milk.
Before I discuss dairying in Lebanon, let me provide some general information about the country. Lebanon traces its history almost to the beginning of civilization. It is home to the second-oldest inhabited city in the world, Byblos. Byblos was home to the Phoenicians, traders who developed the basis of our current alphabet. Throughout history, due to its strategic geographic position and natural resources, Lebanon has been controlled by many of the world’s powers – Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. After World War I, France gained oversight of Lebanon and did so until Lebanon began its first steps toward independence in the early 1940s.
One of the challenges facing Lebanon, and a cause of its civil war from 1975-1991, is its religious make-up. About 50 percent of the population is Muslim, 45 percent Christian and 5 percent Druze, with the remaining 5 percent practicing Judaism or some other religion. As a compromise among the various religious groups, the country’s president is a Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shiite Muslim, with its parliament about evenly divided between Christians and Muslims.
Lebanon is a small geographic country, about four-fifths the size of the state of Connecticut. Its average width is 35 miles, and it has 140 miles of north-to-south coastline bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Israel borders Lebanon on the south and Syria on the east and north. Almost immediately, as one leaves the Mediterranean and heads east, the Lebanon Mountains start and reach a height of more than 10,000 feet. Then, on the eastern side of the Lebanon Mountains, there is the agriculture-rich Bekaa Valley. The Anti-Lebanon Mountains and Syria border the valley on the east.
One of my biggest surprises about Lebanon is the strong consumer interest in dairy products – primarily soft, fresh, white cheeses and yogurt and yogurt-like products. Some of the cheeses included labneh (the Lebanese version of cream cheese), ackawi and halloumi, a cheese that is often fried or grilled. Cheese was served at every Lebanese meal I consumed. A common breakfast food is manakish, a pizza-like dough smothered with cheese that is delicious. Based on my observations, dairy products are plentiful and readily available. The major grocery stores I visited had large dairy cases with an abundance of cheese and yogurt. The dairy cases were much larger than those I am familiar with in the U.S. In addition, I saw many stand-alone stores selling dairy products.
The two dairy plants I worked with sold most of their products through their own retail stores. One of the plant’s flagship stores is located on the centuries-old Damascus Highway, just a few miles from the Syrian border. At certain times of the day, the store was so filled with customers it was difficult to get inside. The retail price of the two most common cheeses, halloumi and labneh, was about $5 per pound and $2 per pound, respectively.
The Lebanese also like their own style of ice cream, which is chewy and thick, and comes in a variety of flavors and colors. I noticed numerous stand-alone ice cream stores. It was a common occurrence to see a car pull in front of an ice cream store, a passenger jump out of the car and rush into the ice cream store and then come out with a handful of cones, piled high with ice cream in a variety of colors. The extra chewiness and thickness of Lebanese ice cream comes from the addition of a thickening powder made from orchids grown in Turkey.
Like many countries outside the U.S., little shelf space in Lebanese grocery stores was devoted to fluid milk. The largest container of fluid milk I saw was 1 liter (about a quart), and the retail price was about $2. There was both fresh, local fluid milk and imported, ultra-high-temperature pasteurized fluid milk.
Now to the dairy farm and plant side in Lebanon. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated there were about 25,000 dairy cows in Lebanon prior to the 2006 war. Due to the war, the national dairy herd declined to about 18,000 head.
One of the plants I worked with had a dairy herd of 10 cows, which I was told was about average size in Lebanon. The cows were Holstein, Brown Swiss and some Holstein-Swiss crosses. Based on the farm’s records, I estimated annual milk production per cow at about 15,500 pounds.
During the summer, the cows graze. This particular farm grazed its cows on ski slopes. Yes, there is snow in Lebanon. There was a makeshift stanchion barn with portable milking machines. Milk was transported, after each milking, directly to the plant. Feed is expensive, with a purchased dairy grain mix costing about $450 per ton. During the winter, cows are fed alfalfa hay, which is also expensive. The owner told me his cost during the previous winter for alfalfa hay was similar to the grain costs, about $450 per ton. During July 2015, farm milk delivered to a plant received about $32 per hundredweight.
One of the plants I worked with would easily pass inspection in the U.S. The plant was modern and followed stringent sanitary requirements. Cheese and yogurt packaging was done in air-controlled rooms. In fact, a group from Land O’Lakes had provided HACCP training at the plant. The plant was waiting on certification to export cheese outside of the Middle East. Besides cow milk, the plant also manufactured cheese from goat and sheep milk. Goat milk was paid the same price as cow milk, but sheep milk was about $45 per hundredweight.
In addition to the Farmer-to-Farmer program and Land O’Lakes, there are other efforts to improve and grow the dairy industry in Lebanon. Starting in 2012, the FAO in partnership with the Lebanon Ministry of Agriculture implemented a program called “Milk for Health and Wealth.” The program emphasizes three benefits of the dairy industry: it provides consumers with a healthy and nutritious food; dairy farming is one of the better ways for people in rural areas to improve their livelihood; and the ripple effect of dairy farming provides economic benefits beyond the farm. Based on published reports, this program is successful and continues to provide assistance to hundreds of small Lebanese dairy farmers.
It is gratifying to see the “world’s organization” recognizing the importance of the dairy industry and that dairying provides both “health and wealth” benefits. Maybe this program in Lebanon can spread to other parts of the Middle East. The next time you read or hear about Lebanon in the news, remember its people are large consumers of dairy products, and it has a viable dairy industry which is striving to grow and expand.