By Alaa Kanaan
BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon (Reuters) - Fruit is ripening and vegetables are shooting up in Lebanon's lush Bekaa Valley, but the head of the region's farmers' syndicate, Ibrahim Tarshishy, is still a worried man.
Saudi Arabia's ban on imports of Lebanese agricultural produce, imposed in April over drug smuggling, has shut a major market for Lebanese farmers who grow everything from lettuce and onions to cherries and peaches. There is no sign yet of an end.
"The Saudi decision was a shock to farmers and exporters," said Tarshishy, who heads the Bekaa Farmers Association.
"To be honest, I don't expect the days ahead to be good. I see before us more depression, sadness and poverty," he said.
The harvest is already underway for fruit, an export money spinner that is vital with Lebanon's economy in crisis. A collapse in the Lebanese pound means farmers have greater need than ever for export dollars to buy fertiliser and other inputs.
Yet the trucks that would normally transport produce south to the Arab world's biggest economy are standing idle.
Saudi Arabia said fruit shipments coming from Lebanon had been used to hide drugs, citing the example of a batch of pomegranates that had been hollowed out and filled with Captagon pills, a type of amphetamine.
Tarshishy said Lebanon's total fruit and vegetable exports were usually about 400,000 tonnes a year, with about a quarter heading to Saudi Arabia or going via the kingdom to Gulf states.
That Saudi market for exports and transit, worth $24 million a year, has been shut down for now, leaving farmers and exporters racing to find alternative buyers abroad.
"Everything is loss on top of loss," said Hussein Madbouh, a farmer, speaking in a field of lettuce, much of which he would normally export to earn foreign exchange. "The fertilisers and chemicals are all priced in dollars. We can't make it work."
BASKET OF FRUIT
The price of lettuce, with its short shelf life, has halved, and some farmers have resorted to selling the produce for animal feed. Farmers now fear prices for other vegetables will plunge too.
The Saudi ban was imposed on April 24 and there is no clarity on when it might end. Farmers' attention is now turning to peaches, cherries and other fruit ripening on the trees that would usually find a ready market in the desert kingdom.
"Lebanon at this time of year is a basket of fruit," said Tarshishy, adding that the main season ran from mid-May until October.
Lebanon's government, already barely able to keep the economy afloat, has promised to work with Saudi Arabia and step up security. It has also asked Riyadh to review its ban.
"There were gaps that smugglers made use of," said Tarshishy, adding that the Lebanese authorities had now improved scanning and other security measures.
But every day that passes with the Saudi ban still in place means more financial pain for farmers. "Who will compensate our loss for all of this?" said Madbouh.
(Reporting by Alaa Kanaan; Additional reporting by Maha El Dahan; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Estelle Shirbon)