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Farming on the Edge: Raising Food in Israel

Despite challenges—such as dry conditions and occasionally getting shot at—Israeli farmers succeed in raising crops and finding their niche in global markets.

By Richard Banks | Photos By Jamie Cole and Richard Banks

SEE THE WHOLE PACKAGE: How Israel overcame its national water shortage and averted an existential crisis. If they can do it, can we? >>

A unique feature borders the edge of farm fields worked by residents of Kibbutz Nirim—a “billion-shekel smart fence.” Equipped with an alarm system that can detect attempts to breach it and alert the military, the fence runs the length of the Gaza Strip, walling off the Hamas-controlled region from its Israeli neighbors.

Seen from atop an Israeli tank ramp: A no-man’s land, the border fence, and Gaza just beyond.

Seen from atop an Israeli tank ramp: A no-man’s land, the border fence and Gaza just beyond.

It does little, however, to protect against Hamas rockets or militants who attempt to enter the country through secret tunnels, both of which occurred during last summer’s 50-day war. That’s when tractors and other farm equipment moved aside for tanks, artillery and troop transport on Nirim’s farmland and that of neighboring kibbutzim.

“During the summer, we had military operations here in the fields, which made it very hard for us to work,” says Nahar, a farmer in Nirim, who asked that we use his first name only for security reasons. The Israel Defense Force (IDF) deployed troops on Nirim’s farmland, between rows of sweet potatoes, peanuts and other crops, to not only protect against invading militants from Gaza, but to also fire into the Strip if necessary.

Later that day, during a visit to the kibbutz this past spring, Ohad Gotshtat, Nirim’s farm manager, drove me through farmland within about a half-kilometer of the Gaza border and its fence. “Just over there,” he answered in broken English, when I asked where a tunnel had been discovered. He told me it was dug by Gaza militants under the border fence, with an opening just a few hundred meters from the protective fence that surrounds Nirim’s residential areas. To Israelis, such tunnels were one of the most frightening discoveries made during the conflict, some reportedly large enough to carry an invasion force, as well as ammunition and other supplies for prolonged combat.

Back above ground, Gotshtat and I sped past IDF forces still stationed in the fields eight months after the end of the previous hostilities. As he continued driving me around, I asked Gotshtat if he could slow down, so I could shoot video from his truck. He looked at me like the naïve American I am and laughed. I took his response to mean he’d prefer not to be an easier target.

My host continued barreling down the paved farm road between wheat ready for harvest and recently planted sweet potatoes, until he made an abrupt turn into one of the fields, accelerated up what was later confirmed to be a tank ramp several meters high, and slammed on his brakes just before we reached the pinnacle and a nearly sheer drop on the other side.

The old diesel truck squeaked as we came to an abrupt stop. Gotshtat pointed straight ahead. There, a couple hundred meters in the distance, from this vantage point I could see the border fence. About another half kilometer to the west were the battered buildings of Gaza. I asked, “Can I get out and shoot, I mean, take video?”

“For one minute. They may shoot us,” he answered, but with a slight smile. Punk’d or not, I figured it best to not push the limits. I scrambled out of the truck, laid down in the weeds at the top of the ramp, partway under the truck, and let the camera run. A few hundred meters on either side of the fence was land plowed flat, scraped clean of any vegetation. There was just tan dirt, and more importantly, no cover in which to hide.

I shot. I saw. I hopped back in the truck and checked the footage—exactly 58 seconds, leaving me within the time set by my host. He backed the truck down the ramp and continued the tour. Eventually, we drove back through the kibbutz gate and into the seeming safety of Nirim, which I later learned was where the last Israeli casualties of the 50-day war died, just hours before a ceasefire and cessation of the violence. (According to the BBC, more than 2,100 Palestinians were reportedly killed in the conflict. Deaths in Israel totaled 73 Israelis and 1 Thai national, who was working in the country at the time.)

A Place of Death

Some 30 kilometers to the south of Nirim, Bnei Netzarim springs from a parched patch of ground, so seemingly desolate and barren it couldn’t be given away. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak tried.

It was the early 2000s, when Barak’s government was negotiating with the Palestinian Authority to create a lasting peace between the two peoples. As they are now, settlements were a huge sticking point, including Jewish outposts in Gaza.

To preserve them and possibly ameliorate the Palestinians, Barak offered the area, around what is now Bnei Netzarim, to the Palestinian Authority as part of a land-for-peace deal. After touring this belt of rock and sand, then-Palestinian leader Yassar Arafat was not impressed, reportedly calling the area “a place of death…. Nothing,” he said, “could grow there.”

Arafat was wrong, or maybe half-right. Perhaps, he should’ve said nothing could grow there willingly.

Covered with a thin blanket of shifting sand, this hardscrabble plot of land is located in a region of the Negev desert the Jews call Eshkol. Geo-politically, it’s referred to as Israel’s triangle border area, with Gaza about 10 kilometers to the north and the Egyptian Sinai—and its growing military insurgency—less than a half click past the Bnei Netzarim fence. Given the millennia during which areas to the north have been inhabited, it’s a testament to this southwestern section of Eshkol’s near-sterility that few have settled here, until now, and that many of the settlers who came here did so as a result of one of the most bitter, polarizing events in modern Israeli history.

Four years after Barak’s failed land swap, the Israeli government, then led by Ariel Sharon, agreed to remove all Jewish residents, as well as the IDF, from Gaza. While many of the 8,000 settlers from what was called Gush Katif left on their own, although grudgingly, many had to be forcibly removed. Known officially as the “Gaza Disengagement,” the move split the broader Israeli populace, many of whom flew orange ribbons from their cars and homes in support of the settlers.

Halutza

When he was a young man and a new immigrant from Uruguay, Pinhas Zeltzer moved to Gush Katif, a block of 21-Israeli settlements in the southern part of the majority Palestinian Gaza Strip. He helped develop a farming community “and I was growing there,” Zeltzer says, through a translator. “I was very successful, until 2005 when we were told to leave. It was a government decision, and we were forced to leave, so we left.”

Harush holds the remains of an exploded rocket that he and Zeltzer say was shot into Bnei Netzarim during last summer’s 50-day war.

Harush holds the remains of an exploded rocket that he and Zeltzer say was shot into Bnei Netzarim during last summer’s 50-day war.

Zeltzer, along with about 30 other families from Gush Katif, accepted an offer from the Israeli government to help with resettlement in Bnei Netzarim and two other nearby communities. Collectively, the three settlements are referred to as Halutza, which in Hebrew means “pioneer,” noting the colonizing, if not experimental, nature of these outposts where farming would be the central focus on land that was heretofore virtually devoid of cultivation.

Built from scratch on nearly virgin desert, the government constructed roads, sewer and other infrastructure. The Jewish National Fund, a U.S.-based, nongovernmental organization, also assisted with funds for structures, such as greenhouses, schools and synagogues.

Today, the population of the three communities has grown to approximately 250 families, and, as he was for his community in Gush Katif, Zeltzer is head of security for Bnei Netzarim and a farmer, growing tomatoes and peppers. He also assists young producers—a focus of the communities’ recruitment efforts—offering expertise on everything from cultivars, compost and growing strategies.

There are several such volunteer mentors, as well as paid experts, helping farmers in various ways, says Yedidya Harush, the liaison for the Halutza Communities and Jewish National Fund in the U.S. They and the 80 or so other Halutza families who farm, as well as the outside labor working the land and greenhouses here, are a big reason, Harush says, “we turned this place of nothing into a little oasis.

This Sand Is Gold

“When we came here, this place was a desert,” Harush explains. “Nobody ever grew here. It was just sand, sand and a little bit more of sand,” which, he says, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“Everybody thinks that this sand is not something you can grow in. This sand is gold,” he counters, “and actually a better soil to grow [in] since the sand is neutral. The sand doesn’t have any minerals in it, so we [add] the compost and we control the final product.”

Whether it’s the growing properties of sandy desert soil or the reasons for Bnei Netzarim’s founding, Harush tends to view the glass as half full, and its contents being exactly what Halutza, and maybe even greater Israel, needs. His zeal for the pioneering ideal is infectious, as witnessed by thousands who have heard him speak on frequent trips to the U.S. and elsewhere.

Born in Gush Katif, he was 17 when he and his family moved from their home during the Disengagement. Harush left the country for New Jersey, where he finished high school, but returned to Israel and became a paratrooper with the IDF. As of late July, he lived about 100 kilometers north of the Halutza communities, but he and his wife had plans to move there, having just purchased a lot in Shlomit, the farthest north of the three settlements. (Shlomit, like Bnei Netzarim, is about a half-kilometer from the Sinai, but, perhaps even more precariously located, it’s only two kilometers from the Gaza border.)

That time in the States served Harush well in his capacity as a liason. At just 27 years old, he’s sought after on the JNF speaking circuit, talking proudly of the Halutza residents’ pioneering efforts to live and work in the desert, where the Israeli government has pinned its future hopes and is investing large sums to encourage its citizens to move.

Says Harush of leaving Gush Katif: “I remember standing in front of this house and watching this big yellow bulldozer just knocking [it] down, knocking everything down.” That house was his family’s, Harush later confirmed.

“It was a very, very tough moment for us. But as soon as we left the gates of the Gaza Strip, we decided that we were taking the positive way. We decided to turn the page and move forward … to build a new area in Israel. Because our blood and our spirit … we are pioneers. This is who we are. That’s what we’re doing today.

“Nobody gave us hope,” he continues. “We’re doing it and we will do it. And when you guys come back here in ten years, this place will have 20,000 people. It will be a big, flourishing place.”

Efficient in Everything We Do

Rolling farmland surrounds Nirim. The kibbutz manages almost 5,000 acres on which farmers raise the aforementioned sweet potatoes, carrots and peanuts, as well as winter wheat, potatoes, radishes and more. Most of the crops are grown in open fields and some are raised organically—for example, 50% of the kibbutz’s carrots and sweet potatoes, and 20% of the potatoes. Like that from many other Israeli farms, the majority of the produce—about 60% in the case of Nirim—is destined for export.

Sprinklers in a field managed by Kibbutz Nirim.

Sprinklers in a field managed by Kibbutz Nirim.

“We sell our crops to local market through a cooperation with a few other farms in the area,” says Nirim farmer Nahar. “Together, we own a packing house, cooling house and a big marketing operation. Crops for export are also sold via this cooperation.” Meanwhile, he says, crops for processing from Nirim, a community modeled after a traditional Israeli kibbutz, where much of the work and revenue are shared collectively, are sold directly to the factories—e.g., frozen French fries or “chips” as they are called in Israel.

Despite the occasional geopolitical conflagrations, which, according to Nahar, seem to “repeat every two or three years,” the main challenges he says he and other area farmers face are water and manpower, or more specifically the price of each. “In Israel the manpower is not so cheap,” says Nahar, “and you have to think about it when you choose a crop, that you don’t have to put in as much man hours. Also, we try to make [farming] as mechanized as we can.”

The downside to that is “diesel is very expensive here.” By comparison, the price per liter in spring 2015 averaged about $1.80 US in Israel, compared to $.75 in the States and $.91 in Canada. “We have to be fuel efficient. No. We have to be efficient in everything we do,” says Gotshtat, through a translator.

To that end, Nirim’s farmers employ a variety of precision agricultural tools and technologies, including auto-steer and variable-rate fertilization, as well as aerial footage from satellite and mini-unmanned aerial vehicles. “The use of good efficient irrigation equipment is also important,” says Nahar.

He, Gotshtat and other area farmers agree with government officials that Israel no longer has a national water shortage, but the water that is available is expensive, its price having increased, on average, by 25% since 2010. “Since the big desalination facilities became operational, there is no shortage of water for household use,” says Nahar. “Our main problem is the cost of water for agriculture. The high cost of water is due to the high cost of desalination, and the high cost of treated sewage water.”

In addition to capable irrigation equipment—mostly sprinklers and pivots, with use of drip for some summer crops—efficiency is achieved, says Nahar, “by choosing the right time to water each crop,” whether that’s time of day or making the most of infrequent rains. “In addition, he says, “we store winter [rain] water in reservoirs for use during the summer.”

“We live at the edge of a desert,” Nahar continues, “and the main consideration in planning and growing the crops is the water management, water use, water efficiency. That’s the main thing that we’re thinking about when we consider which crop to grow or when to grow it.”

Everything Is Computerized

Compared to what the area offered prior to 2005, the Halutza communities are already thriving, blooming if you consider the greenhouses and other farming operations run by the residents.

Like many similar agricultural operations in Israel’s desert, much of the produce is destined for export markets—about 70% in the case of the three Halutza communities—and about 40% percent is grown organically. The communities’ farmers, whose individual businesses are more or less privately run, market their potatoes and carrots through a Halutza-owned export company, whereas most of the other farm goods are sold through third-parties. While much of the produce has thus far been exported to Europe, beginning this winter, frozen broccoli and cauliflower grown in the area will even be marketed in the U.S.

Gilad, who asks that we only use his first name for security reasons, oversees hand-pollination of tomatoes to produce hybrid seeds.

Gilad, who asks that we only use his first name for security reasons, oversees hand-pollination of tomatoes to produce hybrid seeds.

Fruits and vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots, pomegranates and dates, are grown outside. Crops, such as cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes are typically grown in greenhouses from August until May—for produce, as well as hybrid seeds. Many of the greenhouse-raised plants are grown using a method Harush calls the “Netherland Way,” whereby branches of, say, a tomato plant are grown vertically via wire or twine hung from horizontal supporting wires—think clotheslines—that are at least seven feet above the ground. As each branch’s capacity to produce expires, it’s laid flat on that sandy soil and newer shoots are strung up to take its place.

Such a method, coupled with a mix of high-tech tools and manual labor to pick the crop, can produce, according to Harush, an average yield per acre of 100 tons, compared to maybe 15 to 20 tons per acre for field-grown tomatoes. Each year’s production usually ceases in late spring, when all annuals are removed and the soil is treated with heat and chemical inputs, often organic, to kill off pests living in the soil.

The greenhouses also help in the fight to prevent unwanted insects and pathogens from damaging the crop. “We’re in a closed building,” explains Zeltzer, “that basically [prevents] almost any bugs from coming in.” Since good insects are also kept out, farmers introduce bees to help with fertilization.

Halutza farmers, as do others in Israel, use a variety of high-tech tools. “Everything is computerized. Everything has sensors,” Zeltzer says, including temperature gauges and moisture monitors in the soil that relay information to smart phone apps.

Regular monitoring is all the more critical in a desert environment, says Harush, translating for Zeltzer. For instance, growers here, compared to those farming in more typical soil, must irrigate more frequently but with less volume. “We have to irrigate twice a day … because everything goes through so quick and it doesn’t stay, because it’s not regular soil. It’s sand.”

Also, water content must be closely monitored, especially for salt content. Some farmers use desalinated water piped in from a plant in Ashkelon, some 90 kilometers to the north, while others use treated wastewater. “They have to check how much salt there is in the water,” Harush says of area farmers. If the content is too high, “what happens is it could burn some of the tomato and could kill it, and cause very, very big damage.”

Incubator

Those tenets and other hard-learned lessons are exchanged with all farmers in Halutza, especially new ones, most of whom are young. Like farming virtually everywhere else, it’s a difficult trade to start from scratch, especially for young people.

“Today in Israel, if you’re a young person, you need at least $300,000 to start a basic farm business,” Harush says, “and almost no one I know can do it. The only option to become a farmer is if you’re dad or your mom have been farmers for many years, and they just hand it to you. Otherwise, it’s almost impossible.”

To help lower the barriers, the Halutza communities provide land, financial assistance and training to young people wanting to farm. Each gets six acres for a total of two years. In return, they pay a reduced rent and must move from the incubator after two years.

“With a needle we pick them, so to speak, so we know that those guys have a real big chance to become farmers afterwards,” Harush continues. “They just have it and they really want it, and they want to live here.”

The young farmers as well as other potential residents of Halutza undergo a screening process before being allowed to live in the communities. “They got to be good people,” says Harush, “who we know are good quality, up to the challenge of being pioneers in 2015. For example, this past Friday [July 10, 2015] we had rocket attacks from Sinai. The ISIS branch launched three rockets at the Halutza communities. So people must be prepared and understand the challenges that we’re facing.

“Basically” he continues, “it’s like planting a tree. You want to plant it straight; otherwise, it grows crooked. We want to plant the seeds for a strong community now for a quality community tomorrow.”

A Calling and a Privilege

There’s a sort of maxim in ag circles that farmers hope for three types of safety. One is an assurance, as much as anything can actually be guaranteed, that their land can be passed on to subsequent generations. Another is that the crop that was planted or, perhaps, calf born, will one day yield its promise of a harvest, whether that’s ears of corn, beef or milk at the dairy. The third is safety from physical harm.

Worldwide, and especially in countries, such as the U.S., Canada and Israel, where agriculture is mechanized, farming is perennially one of the most dangerous occupations. Chemicals that can asphyxiate and burn the skin are in use. A PTO can grab clothing and separate a human limb from the rest of the body in the blink of an eye. A silo or grain wagon full of wheat, corn, beans or other goods can swallow and suffocate a human like quicksand.

The list of hazards goes on, but very few farmers from most developed countries must seek safety from rockets, bullets and secret tunnels; from a cycle of violence that seems to “repeat every two or three years”; or from the growing threat of an ISIS-derived insurgency just across a fence. Again, whether the Israelis are partly responsible for that cycle of violence is not the purview of this article or this series. Yet, it is worth noting, how, in this country with less-than-ideal conditions, both climatic and geopolitical, farmers, even those living and working next to borders where enemies lurk, still manage to produce significant yields with great efficiency and aplomb.

And, as they have an extra layer of hazards, growers in this country also have an added reason to farm, as well as hold their ground. Says Zeltzer of his time in Gaza, “We had to deal with a lot of rocket attacks and terror attacks. We did not choose to leave. The government told us to. Now, we’re building the Negev. This is our mission now.”

Adds Harush: “For all my life that I’ve been in Israel. I’ve been doing one thing. It’s called Zionism. Our connection and our relationship with the land and the people, and as a Jew, we’re connected to the land, our homeland. We will not leave.”

“Farming in Israel,” explains Nahar, “it has a big cultural aspect, a big heritage aspect, because, speaking historically, the Jewish people in Europe and also the Arab countries were not farmers. They lived off banking and [being] doctors, all kind of professions that were not so close to the ground.

“Coming back to Israel, coming back to this land and farming this land was part of the ethos that was building this country from the beginning. So for me, just going along that path that was starting the country, starting the state, is a privilege and I think that is a right thing to do.”

Nahar says people had a good common life on both sides of the border before, and hopes for a peaceful existence again.

Nahar says people on both sides of the Gaza border “had a good common life” in years past and hopes for a peaceful existence again.

The reality is, however, that many of these farmers carry out their respective missions, their calling, with families in tow, adding another layer to an already growing list of safety concerns. “Raising a family in the kibbutz, it’s a big privilege for us,” says Nahar, sounding like so many parents elsewhere raising children in a farm town. “It’s an advantage. It’s a really warm community and the kids can walk around freely, and for me, as a father of young children, it’s a really good thing [raising] them on the kibbutz, in farming.”

“The other aspect of the question,” Nahar says, matter of factly, “raising them really close to the Gaza strip, that’s a big dilemma for me, and I think for every parent that is raising children so close to the border and inside the missile range. At this point, we still are staying here and we’re not going to move away so fast, because last summer we saw that the missiles can go all the way to Tel Aviv.

“So, basically, we think that you are not really safe anywhere. And there’s also the ideological state that said that we want to stand here and be close to our land, and not move away just because someone’s trying to make us go.”

Read more about farming at Kibbutz Nirim, here, as well as aquaculture in Upper Galilee and perhaps the world’s deepest water drilling operation, here.

SEE THE WHOLE PACKAGE: How Israel overcame its national water shortage and averted an existential crisis. If they can do it, can we? >>

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