SGHAR, Lebanon: Henri Bou Obeid is staging a revolution of sorts. As the owner of Lebanon’s leading organic food provider, Bioland, Obeid has been quietly planting the seeds of green reform for over a decade. But with the opening of a new eatery and meeting point on an eco-friendly grange, Obeid and his team are fully realizing their farm-fresh philosophy.Obeid has no need for a militant green manifesto. Rather, the proof is in the pudding as visitors amble around Bioland’s remote Batroun farm that hosts the new eatery.
Geese sound the alarm as visitors enter the property. Chickens cluck contentedly from their roosts, and rabbits furtively burrow beneath their enclosure to tend to their young. Newborn goats with bandy legs bleat from a nearby pen, while bees buzz around their honeycombs. Peach trees are beginning to strain under the weight of plump fruit, while olive trees sway in the breeze.
Everything on the farm is certified organic, grown under the watchful eye of Obeid his wife, Rosy, and their team.
In a time when Lebanese consumers buy vacuum-sealed meat cutlets from the supermarket and many local farmers wantonly spray their crops with chemicals, Obeid decided that it was time to return to the nation’s terroir.
Originally a hobby project, the pair started growing fresh produce over a decade ago for their children.
“I started with just five thousand square meters of land, and the idea was to have clean stuff for my family and my kids to eat,” he told The Daily Star.
After completing a study of the organic market in Lebanon, Obeid made some discouraging discoveries.
“The first thing that we noticed was that the range of organic products was very limited. And if you go into an organic shop or an organic stand in a supermarket, you often found that everything was 100 percent imported,” he said.
“Another problem we saw was that organic food was becoming a luxury, and something to show off. People would eat food with chemicals all week, and then have an organic brunch for their friends on Sundays just to show that they were trendy.”
However, he found the organic option was not available to everyone.
“There were a lot of educated young people with food awareness who could not afford to eat organic. If you sell one kilogram of organic tomatoes for $5, you cannot eat organic, or you will be very thin,” he said.
“It’s a sad fact that the organic market was really dead.”
Obeid made it his mission to bring organic Lebanese products to the Lebanese people at affordable prices.
But he soon realized that he would need others to join his cause.
“Even if we pumped all our resources, both financial and man-power, it would be impossible for us to change the Lebanese market alone,” he said.
“We started establishing farmers to switch them to organic. Some people laughed at us. They found it ridiculous. Others were interested but didn’t commit. A few were interested and followed though, and they are now our partners,” he said.
Today, the Bioland brand encompasses a shop in Ashrafieh, more than 190,000 square meters of farmland, a network of organic producers across the Chouf and north Lebanon, and now the newly opened farm restaurant.
At the restaurant, long tables are laid out beneath a pergola, under which fresh air passes freely. Serving a set weekday menu and a Sunday buffet, more than 70 percent of the traditional Lebanese food served at the restaurant comes from the surrounding Batroun farm.
Hearty eggs, awarma, kafta, grilled lamb, fresh cheese, zaatar and kisk manakeesh manifest Bioland’s “Farm to Fork” creed. The savory and distinctly Lebanese flavors are uncorrupted by pesticides or preservatives so common in today’s food.
Aside from products grown on their own land, Bioland’s farm restaurant features food and confitures produced by a network of more than 17 fully organic farms and cooperatives across Lebanon.
Both Obeid and his wife Rosy are passionate about educating the next generation about organic farming and nature more broadly.
Rosy has spearheaded a field trip program in which schools, day-care centers and families visit the farm. Exploring the Batroun menagerie the youngsters can experience and interact with nature, and learn the importance of sustainable food production.
“Every week we have schools coming to visit the farm,” Rosy said. “The kids feel free here.”
For Obeid, organic farming is also way to connect with the nation’s storied Epicurean heritage.
Obeid points out that not too long ago, all Lebanese food was organic.
“‘We have a sign in our shop that says, ‘Try organic food, or as our grandparents called it, food.’”