Squeezing the most out of every drop


(Note: Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell recently traveled with an Ohio agricultural trade mission to Israel.)
JERUSALEM, Israel – It’s all about the water. Or lack of water. Or drilling brackish water you can’t drink.
Israel has varied climates, but its agricultural potential is limited by water. More than 60 percent of the country is semi-arid or arid. Rainfall varies from 1 inch per year in the southern Negev desert to 28 inches in parts of the north, and most of the rain comes only between November and April.
Issue runs deep. Water is seen as a national asset and all users, urban residents and rural farmers, receive an annual allocation.
Water use and management is also a strategic security and political issue in Israel, which further muddies the picture. If you can get and use water in an unproductive border region, settlements and population will follow, building border security.
So it’s strange to see miles and miles of drip irrigation lines criss-crossing the country, in an apple orchard high in the Golan Heights, in the landscaping outside of Tel Aviv, and in olive orchards in the desert. Today, half of all agricultural land is under irrigation.
Water is a problem, but somehow Israelis find ways to jump the hurdle.
Water carrier. Lake Kinneret, or the Sea of Galilee, in northeastern Israel provides 40 percent of Israel’s water. The water is piped from the north nearly the length of the country through the National Water Carrier, funded in part by the U.S. and other countries after Israel became a nation in 1948.
The water network started in 1953 and was completed in 1964. The National Water Carrier stretches for 81 miles in length, through tunnels, open canals and underground water pipes.
Aquifers also provide water, although some are in the Palestinian territory and have become political footballs. The long-term integrity of the aquifers is also questionable.
In the south, farmers have to drill 800 meters (more than 25,000 feet) just to get to water that’s not fit for drinking.
Israeli ingenuity. To stretch its limited resources, Israel has creatively reclaimed wastewater, artificially-induced rainfall (cloud seeding), turning salty water into fresh water through desalinization, and intercepted runoff. Greenhouses are shifting to closed irrigation systems, recycling drainage water.
Up to 70 percent of effluents, or wastewater, is treated and reused in Israel, primarily in agriculture.
Agricultural research has also uncovered which varieties of crops can be grown with less water.
“The one hallmark of Israeli agriculture, I believe, is efficiency,” said Ohio’s director of agriculture Fred Dailey. “They’re very innovative people.”
This tour was Dailey’s third trip to Israel, and he’s reciprocated by hosting agricultural delegations to Ohio.
Water in the desert. At the Ramat Negev Desert Agro-research Center, it’s science that’s turning water into, well, water.
Located in the desert about 19 miles south of Beersheva, the center gets water through the National Water Carrier and from eight local wells with the water level 800 to 990 feet below the surface. The brackish water from the wells, however, is not drinkable because of levels of magnesium, calcium, chloride and potassium.
Average yearly rainfall is only 3.6 inches. The soil? Pure dune sand.
Here, explains Zion Shemer, director of the center’s extension station, each farmer in the region gets only a limited quantity of fresh water.
There is a desalinization plant, but the resulting water is not good for agricultural use.
Some of the research measures which mixes of fresh, salt brine or brackish water can be used to successfully irrigate greenhouse tomatoes, as well as other crops, and also determine which crops and which varieties respond the best.
Other experiments cover cutting flowers, almonds, grapes for wine production, and vegetables.
“All of the agriculture in the region, the knowledge comes from here,” Shemer said.
He showed the Ohio group a greenhouse experiment with cherry tomatoes being grown vertically. Local farmers have found greenhouse tomatoes to be a successful crop, and have even pioneered the “Desert Sweet” tomato, watered with salty, instead of fresh, water, and developed at the Agro-research Center.
Cleveland connection. It’s also at this desert research station that the Cleveland-based Negev Foundation has pledged $2.5 million to build an agricultural research and business facility to better serve the center’s researchers, as well as researchers from the Hebrew University and Ben Gurion University.
The new center, which the foundation says will be the first of its kind in Israel, will provide state-of-the-art labs, conference room, administration and scientist offices and updated equipment service garage.
The fund-raising foundation works to help develop the Negev desert region into a stronger, economically developed area, which would also lure more people from the more populated regions of Israel’s north. The foundation was also a sponsor and helped underwrite the Ohio delegation’s tour.

Get our Top Stories in Your Inbox

Next step: Check your inbox to confirm your subscription.