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Saturday, September 22, 2012

Coaxing crops from the sand

Israel’s most productive vegetable farms are located in the Arava desert. How did this inhospitable environment become so fertile?

By Avigayil Kadesh
Back in 1959, a bunch of idealistic would-be farmers staked a claim in the arid sands of Israel’s Arava, a quite literally deserted region situated along 180 kilometers (about 112 miles) stretching from the Dead Sea in the north to the southern city of Eilat on the Red Sea coast.
Everyone thought they were “meshugenners,” crazy people, relates Aylon Gadiel, director of Central and Northern Arava Research and Development.
Sure, the narrow strip of land offered picturesque landscapes winding from the mountains of the Negev highlands in the west to the Edom mountains of Jordan in the east. But farmland? Not likely.
“You couldn’t live in the Arava, let alone grow vegetables there,” says Gadiel.
Today, however, thriving Arava farms supply more than 60 percent of total Israeli exports of fresh vegetables and about 10% of ornamental exports such as flowers and exotic fish.
Turns out these early pioneers, so eager to fulfill David Ben-Gurion’s vision of a blooming desert, weren’t so crazy after all. The kibbutzim they established – Yotvata, Ein Yahav, Ein Gedi – are still around as proof that anything is possible with enough human ingenuity and a little help from above.

The drip works wonders

Gadiel explains that modern drip irrigation, innovated in the early 1960s in Israel, was the number one advancement that allowed the experiment to succeed.
Until that time, agriculture in Israel was almost entirely dependent on rainfall, and therefore was limited to the northern and coastal sections of the country.
“Some of the pioneers of drip irrigation, such as Simcha Blass and Yuval Zohar, made Israel as a whole an example for the entire world,” he says. “Israel has always shared [its expertise]. People come from abroad to see cotton, vegetables and date trees growing on drip irrigation. In the last 15 years, the Arava in particular has become an international school for agricultural trainees.”
In drip irrigation, which Israel’s agricultural researchers are constantly improving and refining, water is dripped uniformly onto the root system of crops from a specially constructed pipe. Both water and fertilizers can be delivered economically in quantities to fit any soil type, and even poorer quality saline water can be used effectively.
Because agriculture gobbles up the largest portion of available water, this efficiency is especially important in a country that gets rain only during the winter months. The United Nations chose the Arava region as a global model for agricultural education on using minimal water.
What drip irrigation started, Arava R&D has continued through unique cooperative programs that demonstrate what can happen through sharing collective wisdom.
“We try to work with the growers and agricultural extension services and commercial companies like seed companies, because they are all here in the Arava. We use our website and we have seminars and tours for growers. We try to get the knowledge flowing back and forth,” says Gadiel.