Egypt stands alone as the primary producer of core medical crops to serve the world market. Demand for these medicinal and aromatic plants has only increased since ancient times and Egypt has a long and rich history of export and trade stemming back thousands of years. The fertile Nile River Valley is the birthplace for precious resinous plants that grow nowhere else in the world. The hot African sun brings out the essential oils and healing properties of these incredible plants.
The main crops grown in Egypt are a refined and unwavering line of essentials. We don't find fringe or esoteric plants here…but only those evolved through thousands of generations of heirloom cultivation to thrive in this arid desert climate. Mountain Rose Herbs relies on Egypt for crops such as organic spice oil seeds like cumin, coriander, fennel, caraway, and anise. Flower crops such as hibiscus, chamomile, and calendula also thrive here, along with flavorful leaves like marjoram, parsley, and cilantro, and roots such as beet, and our beloved cornerstone, licorice.
Given the importance of these botanicals, I recently traveled to this legendary land to meet with our farmers and walk the dry fields to learn the challenges of organic farming in the desert and to assist wherever possible. Last year brought increased obstacles to our Egyptian suppliers which resulted in important products such as chamomile and calendula being out of stock for quite some time. In order to gain a deeper understanding of these issues and to find long-term solutions for remediating certain quality concerns, this trip was timed to inspect our cargo on-site and post-harvest before shipping to our facilities in Eugene, and also to strategize for future plantings. All of the dried material inspected was destined for our facility. This harvest was the result of a tremendous amount of hard work by the farmer who was able to turn around complications to increase overall yield, potency, and vibrancy of the herb crop. We take pride in creating these collaborative partnerships with our farmers, strengthened by mutual support, and many, many years of relationship building.
Along with these farm visits, I also had the good fortune to represent Mountain Rose Herbs at the Egypt Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (EMAP) event which was held as part of the first Food Africa Trade Show in Cairo.
Passing the Great Pyramids on my way out of Cairo, I traveled through the desert to the Fayoum Oasis, an area with a deeply historic agricultural background. The area was once the site of a vast lake that eventually receded to what is now the 3rd largest lake in Egypt, Lake Qarun. A beautiful place to visit for its calm waters and birdlife, it is rich with stories of drowned king’s treasure and past presidential palaces. The lakeshore drive gives way to the outskirts of Fayoum City. Fayoum twists with an intermingling of narrow streets crowded with cars, farmers riding small white burrows, and women clothed in traditional garb. The cacophony of a busy city cannot quite drown out the past echoes of Egyptian people living and working the land here. As one street gives way to buildings, the other gives way to cropland.
When I found myself at the first farm, it boasted a newly built processing facility and a three story dwelling that houses the three generations of family who own and run it. In front of me was lush farmland: a patchwork of spearmint, calendula, fennel seed, and marjoram with date palms dotting the scenery. As I walked into this landscape, the realization came that 100 or even 1,000 years ago it would have looked exactly the same, with farmers tending to their precious crops.
Dressed in a traditional galabeya (a full length garment with flared long sleeves worn by farmers) the serenity of the area was reflected in the farmer's manner and movements. I had just missed the calendula and chamomile harvests, but calendula flowers still stood golden yellow against dark green foliage. These last flowers will be used for seeding next year’s crop after fully maturing and being dried. Spearmint, fragrant and lush, was nearly ready for harvest on one side of the narrow path we walked, while on the other, fennel seed stalks recently hand-cut with a sickle were tied in sheaves and left drying in the hot sun.
Farther on, we came to a field of marjoram being furrow irrigated for its last watering of the season before being harvested. It was hot, nearly mid-day, and field hands sat under a thatched covered roof taking tea and relaxing in the heat. I looked out across the patchwork landscape of herbs, spices, and date palms that make up this area of the Fayoum Oasis, and felt a wave of gratitude to know that what we do supports a plant tradition that goes back many generations.
Growing and processing herbs and spices in much of Egypt is still done in the traditional way: hand planted, hand harvested, and hand processed. For some crops like whole chamomile and calendula flowers, hand processing is required to keep the larger portion of the flowers intact. For other crops, the cost of equipment outweighs the cost of labor. But, as the countryside becomes more modernized, larger quantities are produced and machinery is starting to replace people power. The double-edged sword of mechanization and modernization makes itself known as less jobs become available and the draw of the city beckons rural populations away from their traditional lifestyle.
What this means for the future of Egypt is uncertain, but in the meantime, I am thankful for the skill that these people possess in all aspects of the growing and processing of some of our most important herbs. The hand sifting of these herbs is not just a matter of shaking it on a hand held screen and then pulling off what you don’t want. I was told that there are 5 different movements used to clean chamomile alone, each separating out a different part of the plant. After my first attempt at sifting, I was jokingly told that I was of no value doing this job, and while I hate to say it, even after several attempts it was still true; I would never make a chamomile sorter.
As I admired the beautiful sifted flowers that we will offer to our customers, I again felt such deep appreciation for the hard work and skill of the farmers living in this Oasis.