BARQA, Lebanon: The average Lebanese family has about two children. Throw in two parents, four grandparents, two aunts, two uncles and a dozen cousins and you might have enough people to finish one ostrich egg omelet.
Since March, the beginning of laying season, Dany Geagea’s ostriches have produced dozens of eggs. They weigh roughly 2 kilos each, about as much as a small chicken, and just one is equivalent to 25 chicken eggs.
For now, Geagea hopes that most will grow into chicks, not omelets.
He currently has 10 ostriches and aims to have 20 new chicks by the end of the season, though – following the proverb very literally – he’s not counting them before they hatch.
The long term goal is to have a virtual ostrich army of 1,000.
The ostriches are just one part of a Geagea’s plan to build a farm and a way of life in his village, Barqa, that show young residents that they don’t have to move to the city or out of the country to build a sustainable future for themselves.
Trained as a civil engineer, a job he still works on weekends, Geagea started his farm two years ago with two cows and “a big dream.”
His entrance into ostrich farming came through a friend who attended an agricultural fair and returned with tales of the giant birds and their eggs.
“At the beginning, I didn’t believe him, I thought he was pulling my leg. ‘That big?!’” Geagea says.
“So I asked him to bring me the shell after he ate it.”
After he saw the egg for himself, Geagea did some research and paid a visit to an ostrich farm in south Lebanon, the only of its kind in the country at the time.
“I loved them. There was an immediate affinity between us,” he says.
He was also impressed by the potential products.
“You can use every part of the ostrich: the meat, the fat, the feathers, the eggs,” he explains.
Geagea bought his birds when they were six months old and transported them in the back of pickup truck from the village of Maaroub in the south to Barqa in the northern Bekaa.
From Baalbek, the road is lined with potato and tobacco crops and fields of recently harvested wheat. It passes Our Lady of Bechwat, a church where faithful from across the country pray for healing miracles.
The village itself is nestled in the foothills beneath mountains peaks that still have fields of snow in the shadows and above the wide bottom of the valley which is hot and dry.
“It’s a desert bird so it can stand heat and cold,” Geagea says, explaining that even the Maaroub farm has relocated to the Bekaa. Since the move, other farmers in the area, small-scale operations like Geagea’s, have begun buying ostriches.
“The Bekaa is the ostrich capital of Lebanon,” he says.
Though native to parts of Africa (the Middle Eastern ostrich which lived in the Arabian Peninsula became extinct 50 years ago), Geagea’s ostriches seem quite at home in their pens. They are divided into three families, each with one male and two females.
“It’s better that they live on their own so they concentrate on fertilizing eggs, not on fighting,” he explains.
The birds are intimidatingly tall and meeting them face-to-face is just that. Their large toes look like they were inherited directly from dinosaurs but this isn’t Jurassic Park.
“They are very sweet except when they’re protecting their eggs,” he says.
Their reputation for burying their heads when afraid is not quite accurate, Geagea says, but he admits that the birds are not known for their intelligence. The males, mostly black, act like dandies dressed up for a ball, twirling around, impressing the ladies.
They dig holes for the females to lay eggs, but Geagea takes them to an incubator, constructed by hand, both to encourage the birds to lay more eggs and to help their chances of developing.
Eventually, Geagea will be selling the eggs (which despite their size are prepared just like chicken eggs), ostrich meat, which is extremely low in fat and “very tender, like white veal,” as well as the skin for leather and the feathers.
Though it will likely be another season before ostrich products are available, Geagea currently makes cheeses, such as halloum and kashkawan (among just a handful made in Lebanon) and yoghurt, all of which is organic and sold at Souk el-Tayeb in Beirut or by order.
Everything he does is by hand and tested through trial and error, but he’s not alone in his work.
Geagea, his family (his uncle Sami Geagea is Barqa’s mukhtar) and other residents are members of an association and agricultural cooperative they launched to develop profitable ways to use the land while protecting it and local heritage at the same time.
The association is called Mamlaket el-Lezzeb, named after the local species of juniper that it works to protect. The group holds workshops and goes into classrooms to teach about the trees which cover the foothills, and has also begun promoting the area as tourist destination.
“The idea of a green Lebanon is not going to be realized along the coast or in Kesrouan,” Geagea says.
By bringing tourist interest and money to the area, making it profitable to be green, it has become easier to show farmers and other residents the value of the juniper forests, which shelter migratory birds and take hundreds of years to grow.
“We’ve inherited the trees from the time of Christ and we pass them on to our children,” he continues.
“It’s our heritage. It’s like looking at history,” his uncle Sami agrees.
They’ve built small cabins inside of one forest, where guests can pick their own fruit and are treated to meals prepared exclusively with locally sourced products.
“If tomatoes aren’t in season, the salads won’t have tomatoes,” he laughs. “If they want caviar, they’re out of luck.”
But if they want an omelet, they’re in just the right place.
For more information on Barqa, which will be hosting a celebration for St. Charbel Day and cherry picking on July 14 and 15, visit www.barqonline.com or call 71-277-891.