ZAWTAR GHARBIEH, Lebanon: Nayfa Yaghi happily prefers to grow thyme, which at long last has put an end to tobacco production on her farm. Yaghi, in her 70s, is attached to her land the way a soul is attached to a body, she said.
She along with dozens of other farmers from Zawtar Gharbieh, in the district of Nabatieh, has increased production of this fragrant and culturally significant plant over the past decade, and has recently urged public officials to better facilitate its small-farm cultivation.
The first farmer to promote planting thyme in the village was Mohammad Nehme more than 10 years ago.
Thyme cultivation is no longer confined to Lebanon’s hills, mountains and valleys where it grows in the wild. The herb is now being planted in lowlands and fields as well. In places like Zawtar Gharbieh, thyme has replaced tobacco crops, which farmers call the bitter sapling because planting and harvesting it is such arduous work.
Nayfa said there’s no return to planting tobacco.
“This crop is gone forever,” she said. “I call on the Agricultural Ministry to shift to thyme from tobacco, which is harmful.”
Nehme even proposed to the agriculture minister, Hussein Hajj Hasan, that thyme replace controversial drug cultivation in the Bekaa Valley because it yields a profit and has a market in Lebanon and the Arab Gulf.
Yaghi is one of 20 farmers in Zawtar Gharbieh who have shifted from tobacco to thyme, while farmers in the nearby village Arnoun have also begun planting thyme.
“This plant requires close care but doesn’t require pesticides,” Yaghi said. “The farmer doesn’t need to buy seeds because when you dry the plant, you can extract the seed from it.”
Thyme also requires very little water, except in the beginning of its life as a small sapling.
Every 100 grams of seeds plants 10 dunams of thyme, she said.
Another farmer named Murtada Yaghi explained the process of growing thyme.
Planting thyme begins in March and April, after the farmers finish preparing the land and installing the irrigation network. The sapling is planted in spring and matures in summer.
“We plant the seeds in small trenches and wait for months until they become saplings, then we pull them out and plant them in fields,” he said. “And we pick them during summer.”
Each dunam planted produces 70 kilograms of thyme.
The plant can then be dried, ground and mixed with sumac as the traditional zaatar spice sold in the market, Murtada said.
Nehme boasted of being the first one to bring thyme to the village, just after Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon in May 2000. He said he abandoned his job as a construction worker and tobacco production along with it.
He had little fear about the market for zaatar and fresh thyme.
“I’m not afraid, no matter how huge the yield is. The local and the Arab Gulf markets are available and I’m now planting dozens of dunams and I still need more land to plant.”
The annual rent of one dunam of land to grow thyme is $400.
Nehme is trying to get a permit from the Agricultural Ministry to establish an association to look after the interests of small thyme farmers.
He urged the government to make thyme a certified Lebanese product because there are dozens of investors waiting for such a measure before investing in its cultivation.
He said the government should also draft laws to prevent picking thyme from mountainous areas because the wild growth is beneficial to the land and environment, and reduces the presence of harmful insects.
The very meaning of the name zaatar refers to the fragrant, aging and wild plant, he said.
From the herb, farmers can produce fresh thyme for salads, dried zaatar and fragrant oil.
The Lebanese market consumes tons of thyme, Nehme said, both fresh thyme and the ubiquitous zaatar spice mix used in staple breakfast foods such as mankoushe.
Murtada laughed as he remembered childhood meals loaded with zaatar.
“When we were kids my mother used to make zaatar and olive oil sandwiches that we could take to school,” he said. “She used to tell us that zaatar makes you smarter and allows you to understand the lessons better.”