Desert Dreams

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The farmers of the Central Arava Region are continuing to fulfill David Ben-Gurion’s dream of making the desert bloom with the help of the Central and Northern Arava Research and Development Center, which is experimenting with raising all sorts of crops in the most arid part of the country.

By: Heidi J. Gleit

Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, has become a controversial figure. Once admired for his remarkable vision, today his lack thereof is said to be the source of some of the country’s severest problems. While history’s verdict on this multifaceted leader still is out, there is no denying his tremendous impact on the State of Israel. One of the places this is most apparent is the Arava, where a series of settlements extend like sentries along the now-quiet border with Jordan and residents strive to wrest a livelihood from the earth of the country’s most arid region.
Despite the dearth of arable soil and potable water, most of the 3,500 residents of the five agricultural moshavim and two community settlements in the Central Arava Region support themselves by working in agriculture or related fields. The region has about 600 family-owned and operated farms, each of which extends over some 12.5 to 15 acres. One factor in the farms’ success is an institution that also is a child of Ben-Gurion’s vision: regional research and development centers. Just like the advisors and mentors that were sent to the new agricultural communities where new immigrants were settled in the 1950s to teach them how to be modern farmers, eight centers sponsored by a mix of government ministries, local governments, organizations such as the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, and academic institutions are scattered in peripheral parts of Israel in an endeavor to harness science to help farmers succeed. While academic and scientific research institutions tend to focus on theoretical research, these centers focus on applied research, conducting research on new agricultural products that farmers in their area could cultivate and seeking solutions to specific practical problems that local farmers encounter. They also research how to improve crops already being raised in the region and develop new agricultural techniques. One of the more successful research projects in the Arava was the use of hothouses for the intensive cultivation of bell peppers in winter.
In 1991, the Yair Experimental Station of the Central and Northern Arava Research and Development center, which is named after its first director, the late Yair Goron, was established. The station, which serves the Central Arava Region and the communities at the southern reaches of the Dead Sea, began at En Yahav and then moved to its current site at Hazeva. This site also is home to a branch of the Dead Sea-Arava Science Center, which does scientific research on a variety of topics, including the use of zebrafish in various types of research. The Yair station cooperates with the Volcani Institute and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev on some projects. Its research focuses on water conservation and more efficient use of water in general and brackish water in particular, alternatives to growing plants directly in the ground, improving crop quality, organic agriculture, and reduction of pesticide use, among other topics.
Farmers in the Central Arava must cope with a number of problems, explains Maayan Plaves Kitron, the horticulture coordinator at the Central and Northern Arava Research and Development center, who moved to Moshav Iddan from Kibbutz En Hashofet in 1999, after completing her army service. She began working at the R&D center in 2005 and her husband grows flowers and peppers on the family’s farm.
The first problem, she says, is the weather. In summer, temperatures are above 40 degrees during the day. In winter, it is usually 25 degrees during the day, but very cold at night.
The next problem is water. Rainfall is 30 mm in an average year, but there never is an average year: some years are very dry and some less so since rainfall varies greatly from year to year. This means that farmers can not depend on rain to irrigate their crops, but also gives them an advantage since there is sufficient sunshine in winter for them to grow summer crops. To make matters worse, this part of the country is not connected to Israel’s National Water Carrier. All its water is desalinated or is pumped from the aquifer that is 1.5 km below the surface and has very saline water that is growing more saline. While some crops, such as peppers, produce better-quality vegetables when irrigated with brackish water, farmers must use additional water to wash the salt out of the fields afterwards. Connecting the area to a desalination plant in either Eilat or Ashkelon could solve the water problem, Plaves Kitron notes, but doing so will be costly.
The third main problem is that plants cannot really grow in the harsh earth of the Central Arava. Farmers must cover their fields with about 30 cm of sand and then maintain the sand carefully from season to season in order to grow crops. The shortage of sand in recent years has led the R&D center and farmers to experiment with ideas such as covering only the sections of fields where the plants grow with sand, creating canals filled with sand to grow plants in. This already is being done successfully with mangoes and grapes.
Another issue in the Central Arava is the lack of laborers. Many farms depend on workers from Thailand. Another solution is a program called Avoda Ivrit (Hebrew for Hebrew Labor), which brings young Israelis who just finished their army service to work at farms in the Arava. Those who do so for at least six months are entitled to a post-army grant for working in a critical area. The Arava International Center for Agriculture Training brings about 1,000 agriculture students from places such as Ethiopia, Thailand, Indonesia, Nepal, Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar, to study and work in the Arava. The students spend four days each week working at farms in the area and one day at Sappir taking classes taught by researchers from the R&D center and the area on agriculture.
A relatively new problem that Arava farmers are facing is the fall of pepper prices. Unlike in the past, when farms grew a number of different crops, today they specialize in one or two crops. Most of the 600 farms in the Central Arava specialize in peppers. However, the combination of stiff competition between companies that export Israeli produce, increased competition from Spain, and the fall of the ruble in Russia, which has been a major client for many Arava farms, has caused pepper prices to plummet. While most farmers in the area still depend on peppers, they are starting to grow a wider variety of crops, such as dates, table grapes, mangoes, guavas, pomelos, papayas, pomegranates, flowers, zucchinis, eggplants, melons, onions, tomatoes, and cherry tomatoes.
Dubi Dagay, who grew up at Kibbutz Einat, moved to Moshav Iddan in 2000 and has a farm that grows peppers and herbs. When he gets orders from Europe for red basil, regular basil, and medicinal herbs, they are picked from the fields that same day and then flown to Europe so they are in stores within two days. He and a partner also have a pepper packing plant. He is very aware of Israeli consumers’ complaints about high produce prices, but emphasizes that farmers are not to blame.
“We sell peppers for NIS 3 and Israeli supermarkets sell them for NIS 9, which is a huge difference. There is no connection between the price in the supermarket and the price of growing the produce,” Dagay says.
He came to Iddan because he “wanted to be independent and to be a farmer and the Arava seemed to be the only place to have a family farm and make a living from it,” he says.
Dagay, who is married and has three young children, studied business management at the Open University and largely learned how to operate a farm on the job, he says, adding, “people in the Central Arava share knowledge and are very helpful.” However, for the past three years, things have been difficult and he is looking into other options, from partnering with other farmers to growing new crops with the help of the R&D center.
“Finding the next product is a long process,” he says. “I am checking growing papaya or flowers and am optimistic about the future.”

Finding Nemo in the Desert

The R&D center is exploring many options for new agricultural products from the Arava, some of which are quite surprising, such as fish and coral.
“A high percent of the children who grow up in the area remain here and we wanted to come up with a new agricultural product for them to raise,” Plaves Kitron says. “The R&D center decided to  try raising ornamental fish for aquariums.”
Danny Popper is a researcher at the Yair Experimental Station of the Central and Northern Arava. Originally from Beersheba, he now lives in Zukim. He specialized in aquaculture because he wanted to live near the ocean, but ended up raising tropical fish in the desert not far from where he grew up.
Most of the ornamental fish on the market are caught in the wild, he explains, and are considered difficult to breed. However, catching them harms the environment and they often do not survive long in captivity. Popper and his colleagues experiment with fish from places like the Amazon to Hawaii, trying to figure out how to breed them so that they are a viable product for Arava farmers. They have succeeded with more than a few types of fish, most notably with clownfish, which became very popular in the wake of the movie Finding Nemo. Today two farms in the Central Arava are raising clownfish.
Popper also experiments with raising fish in the leftover water from the desalination process. The R&D center also is checking if raising the fish in aquariums surrounded by screens of different colors effects the color of the fish.
One of the experiments Popper is most excited about is raising coral. There are restrictions on harvesting coral from reefs in the ocean due to their decline. However, the demand for coral to ornament aquariums has not fallen and so Popper is searching for a way to grow it in the R&D lab in the desert in order to meet this demand. He has been working on the project for almost four years and is now checking the impact different amounts and types of light have on the coral’s growth.

Desert Tourism

After agriculture, the most common field of employment in the Central Arava Region is tourism. Many tourism initiatives cater to tourists driving through on their way to Eilat, but the area has enough to offer tourists to make it a worthy destination on its own, from the hiking, biking, and jeep routes through archaeological sites and natural wonders to bed-and-breakfast places that make the most of their location.
“We want to host groups who come specifically here for a desert experience and not be a brief stop for people on the way to Eilat,” Central Arava Regional Council Spokesperson Rinat Rosenberg says. “The council also hosts a number of annual events to draw people to the area, such as Yoga Arava, which brings hundreds of people to the Arava each year since it was started five years ago, a film happening with films being shown on huge outdoor screens that started three years ago, a marathon, and the open days at the R&D center around Tu Bishvat.”
This year, the open days at the R&D center will take place on January 28-29. The event has become the largest agricultural fair in Israel, with over 200 companies from around the world showcasing innovations in agriculture, water, technology, vehicles, and more in over four acres of hothouses and display booths. The event includes performances, a lively vegetable and fruit market, and more.
The Central Arava Region has some 300 guest rooms to accommodate the guests expected for the open days and other events, Rosenberg says. They range from basic rooms at a rustic hostel to luxurious bed-and-breakfast experiences.
Rinat Bashan and Yair Bilensky opened the Desert Days Negev Eco Lodge (www.negevecolodge.com, Tel.: 052-617-0028) in Zukim seven years ago. Zukim was founded in 2003 on the grounds of a few previous settlements that never made it and an old Nahal settlement. The “new” Zukim (formerly Baldad) is striving to base its income on tourism services.
Like many young Israeli couples, Bashan and Bilensky began their adult lives in Tel Aviv, but wanted to do something different that did not involve spending their days in front of a computer. After six years of living at Karkur in the center of the country and searching for a place of their own, they finally moved to Zukim nine years ago.
They built everything at their eco lodge on their own, from the 12 adobe guest units to the main lounge area to the heated pool and the art room where they lead workshops on building and sculpting with mud. The guest units do not have air conditioners – instead they have ceiling fans and fireplaces. They also do not have televisions or wifi – instead there is a kite in each room that guests can fly outside. They cater mainly to families.
The  R&D center also has joined the tourism industry with its new Vidor Center for visitors (www.vidor-center.co.il, Tel.: 077-5681608) that aims to help people know the Arava better and learn about the history of and reason for settlement there. The Vidor Center has three parts: a film on the history of the Arava from ancient times to today; a science museum; and display hothouses. Everything is in English and Hebrew and guides in other languages can be provided if arrangements are made in advance.
The museum has a variety of interactive exhibitions that are designed to appeal to adults and children alike. A sand table shows how the area developed, while films and displays highlight different crops and ornamental fish grown there and modern agricultural techniques. Another group of films takes visitors into the homes of several of the farmers who live in the area.
Next to the museum are two hothouses that are a showcase of crops that the R&D center has helped farmers grow or is considering introducing to the region, from giant spinach-like leaves from India to decorative gourds to gourmet berries. A real hothouse usually only has one type of crop in it, but here there are dozens, including examples of the many different types of peppers grown in the area. The crops include some that they are experimenting with for when they have more water due to desalination, such as strawberries, which are grown in raised beds.
At Moshav En Yahav, the Porat family invites visitors to learn about bees, honey, and the moshav’s history. When Chacha Porat’s late husband, Hagai Porat, finished his army service in 1958, he decided to live at En Yahav with a few friends, she recalls. At the time, it was located near Sappir. He lived there for five years along with members of a Nahal group, some of whom stayed. Chacha was a basketball player and shooting instructor in the army when they met. She soon joined him at En Yahav. There wasn’t land for agriculture at En Yahav’s original site, so they moved to the current site and she has been living in her house for 52 years. The community of seven original founders has grown to 200 families and Chacha has four children and eight grandchildren. Two of her sons still live at En Yahav: Ran is a beekeeper and Uri grows peppers.
After her basketball career ended, Chacha started a career as an artist and has worked with many different media.
“Now I love art – before I just loved basketball and jeeps,” she says with a smile.
She is in the process of turning part of the top floor of her house into a museum dedicated to En Yahav’s early days that is a replication of the moshav dining room that everyone ate in together before they had their own homes. The museum will be open by appointment to groups interested in learning about the history of Ein Yahav. The visit also can include a tour of the factory and visitors center at the Porat Apiary (www.45c.co.il, Tel.: 058-566-6032). The visitors center combines her love of art with her son’s interest in bees. Chacha incorporated large, dramatic photographs of bees and the honey production process and informative displays into a modern art installation featuring a number of her sculptures and 5,000 colorful metal bees that she crafted and are flying in the air. The apiary and visitors center are open by appointment.
Tourists in search of a good meal can follow locals to Ursula (Tel.: (08) 644-4421 or 052-683-8449), the cafe that Ossi Winter opened in the Zukim industrial zone in the fall. The brewery next door inspired her to open a cafe that specializes in the food she remembers from her childhood in Germany. In addition to sausage and beer, the menu includes a onion and cream pizza that her mother used to make.
Winter’s family came to Israel from southern Germany when she was 13. Her parents are Christian Zionists who made aliyah to Migdal with some other families who shared their beliefs. Over the years, the families that stayed in Migdal converted and became Braslav Hasidim. Her parents moved to Jerusalem and the small community that they were originally part of no longer exists.
Winter is a secular Israeli who lived in many parts of the country before the tranquility of the desert attracted her to Zukim five years ago. She plans to promote the Arava to German tourists as a desert vacation destination, explaining, “Not the holy land and not Eilat, but the desert. Instead of travelling to Sahara to ride on camels and enjoy the hospital of a Bedouin tent, come here, on the border of Europe and enjoy the desert that is the most archetypal and the safest it can be.” She adds that the bed and breakfast places here offer “an experience that guests will not get anywhere else.”

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