Farming the Promised Land

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(Note: Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell recently traveled with an Ohio agricultural trade mission to Israel.)
JERUSALEM – One hundred years ago, the land that was to become Israel was swampy, eroded and barren.
Today, it is arable, productive and fruitful, transformed by back-breaking labor, sacrifice and ingenuity.
Agriculture today in Israel is sophisticated. It supplies most of the country’s food, and concentrates on high-value exports. Although it totals just 2.4 percent of the gross domestic product, it is still recognized as a key economic and political player, critical to national security and Israel’s existence.
More than food. “In our souls, most of us are still farmers,” said Gideon Giladi, town leader of Kfar Giladi, explaining that agriculture was the real beginning of everyone in Israel.
For Israelis, agriculture is more than an industry. It is security from a world that cannot be trusted. It is independence.
Small and dry. There are just three things you need to understand about Israeli agriculture, said former Israeli ag trade negotiator Sam Cohen. It’s small; it’s dry and it comes from a collectivist background.
In an area the size of New Jersey, Israel is home to 6.7 million people, compared to Ohio’s 11.4 million residents. There are just 800,000 acres in agricultural and horticultural production, compared to Ohio’s 12.1 million acres.
Israel produces most of its food needs, but imports sugar, coffee and much of its grains, oilseeds, meat and fish.
And, while it exports about 20 percent of its ag output, very little trade is done with Israel’s immediate border countries.
“We are, to a good extent, isolated from the neighborhood,” Cohen said.
Instead, flowers, fruit and vegetables head to Europe, where Israel can take advantage of its different growing season.
Israel’s climate, topography and soil conditions generate a wide range of intensively grown products, from peppers to pomegranates and from cotton to chickpeas.
Smaller and drier. Cohen said urban, industrial and residential construction is starting to gobble up farmland, particularly around the cities.
“It’s small and it’s getting smaller,” he said.
It’s also dry and getting drier, he added. Two-thirds of Israel is the arid Negev Desert in the south. There and even in the wetter north, two-thirds of all farmland is irrigated. Cotton, for example, is almost entirely drip irrigated, using mainly treated sewage. Grain and oilseed crops are about the only thing that is grown on mostly un-irrigated land.
They’re so good at working with and conserving water that irrigation knowledge and high-tech, Israeli-developed irrigation systems are now sold and exported as a commodity.
Israelis also became expert at getting high yields by researching drought-resistant varieties, by developing closed systems in greenhouses, by engineering drip irrigation systems and by creating massive water recycling efforts.
Collective farms. The kibbutz, or communal farm, system built Israel’s agriculture, along with the moshav, or cooperative village. Today, some of the largest processing plants retain their roots in the kibbutz or moshav system. Interestingly, however, farm work is done by a large population of foreign laborers, some 25,000.
Until the mid- to late 1980s, almost all the crops had a production quota with strict limitations. Since then, however, the centralized agreements have crumbled and Israel flourished economically, moving from a socialist foundation to a more capitalist base.
Cohen cited the 1985 Israel-U.S. trade agreement as helping push the ideological shift, because the U.S. demanded reductions in tariffs and freer trading. For the first time, Israel imported chickens and oranges, which was a big psychological step for the young nation, home to the once-famous Jaffa orange.
Beef cattle. Most of the beef eaten in Israel is imported frozen meat from South America. There are about 60,000 beef cattle in Israel, a Hereford-Simmental cross, but it’s difficult to develop the taste and market for fresh meat because it costs two times more than the frozen meat.
“I have a dream that sometime, somewhere to change the 7,000 tons of frozen meat to livestock,” said Haim Dayan, general director of the Beef Cattle Breeders of Israel.
“We have to do a lot more to push the fresh meat.”
But, Dayan said, a bigger problem is Palestinians stealing cows. He estimates more than 3,000 head were stolen last year. The thieves will slaughter the cows in the fields and take the meat, or will shove smaller calves in the back seats of their cars.
“They’re taking everything,” he said.
He’s spent a great deal of time trying to prosecute, but has also had to educate the legal system that the thefts not only hurt economically in the short term, but genetically long-term, too.
Dairy. There are about 118,000 milk cows, mostly Israeli-Holstein, on just over 1,000 dairy farms. According to the ministry of agriculture, milk production averages 22,000 pounds per cow. (We visited only one 700-cow dairy and, while it was fairly modern, the cows and conditions we saw didn’t look like a 22,000-pound dairy.)
Most of the milk is marketed by Tnuva, a milk marketing and processing cooperative. It supplies 70 percent of the country’s dairy products.
There is a quota system, which is basically the annual volume divided into monthly installments. To try and stabilize production, there are incentives for production in certain months. According to the Israel Dairy Board, the price includes average cost of production and an agreed return for labor and capital.
A reform initiative began in 1999 to push Israeli dairy farms to get bigger, more efficient and more “environmentally friendly.” According to information from the Israel Ministry of the Environment, the government provided grants of 50 percent for investments in manure management systems and other pollution abatement measures, and grants of 30 percent for investments to improve efficiency.
Can’t cover it all. Our Ohio farm delegation certainly didn’t see everything connected with Israeli agriculture and it’s certainly impossible to write about it all.
We were surprised at the level of aquaculture (tilapia, carp, trout, bass), at the vast stretches of greenhouses that ran the length of the Jordan Valley, at the intensive floriculture sector and at being able to grow anything, period, in the desert.
In our travels, we passed fields and fields of olives, almonds, date palms and bananas; we saw “low tunnel” vegetable production, windrows of composted manure and irrigated orchards and vineyards. We talked to people in all walks of life, from the grower to the veterinarian to the director general of the ministry of agriculture.
And we learned how a swampy, eroded and barren land became fertile, productive and fruitful. By its people working to carve out a new nation.
(Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell can be reached at 800-837-3419 or at editor@farmanddairy.com.)
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See for yourself
CLEVELAND – The Ohio-Israel Agricultural Initiative and the Cleveland-based Negev Foundation will lead a second mission to Israel May 3-12.
The group will tour farms throughout Israel and learn more about the country’s advanced agricultural technologies.
The tour includes a stop at Agritech, the largest agricultural trade show in the Middle East, and visits to Jerusalem and other holy sites.
For more information contact the foundation at 216-691-9997 or e-mail sarah@negev.org.
Another farmer-to-farmer mission is also planned for next winter.

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