Open House at the Western Negev R&D Station

Monday, January 07, 2013 12:39 PM

On Thursday, January 3, over 3,000 visitors from Israel and from abroad,  spent the day at the Open Day Agricultural Exhibition that took place at the Western Negev Research and Development Station.

Peppers and squashes growing at the R&D station. Photo: Tania Susskind.

On Thursday, January 3, over 3,000 visitors from Israel and from abroad, including farmers from the Palestinian Authority and neighboring Arab countries, spent the day at the Open Day Agricultural Exhibition that took place at the Western Negev Research and Development Station. The annual exhibition provides an opportunity to showcase the station's research projects, which focus on discovering new species and growing methods that suit the soil, water and climate of the western Negev. With the help of its friends throughout the world, KKL-JNF funds 50% of the budget of Israel's research and development stations, which are located in Israel's peripheral regions in the north and south. There is a KKL-JNF representative at every R&D, who is involved in decision making and the R&D's daily activities.

Myron Sofer, director of the R&D
, described some of the new technologies developed at the R&D over the past year: "In the Negev, more efficient water usage is absolutely critical. In order to regulate irrigation, we work with tensiometers, which measure water tension twenty centimeters deep in the soil. They have been in use for 110 years, but we were the first to use them in greenhouses. After three years of experimentation, we have been able to reduce water usage by 15-35%, without harming the crops. I am a Negev farmer myself, and I know what saving that amount of water means. Our goal is to make using the tensiometer so simple that even a twelve-year old child could operate them.

Tomatoes growing at the R&D station. Photo: Tania Susskind.

"In the Negev, manpower is very important. Israeli agriculture is very dependent on foreign labor, which is expensive and also limited by the government. We are trying to find ways to lessen dependence on manual labor. For example, the western Negev grows 50-60% of all of Israel's tomatoes, a crop which is very labor intensive. Together with the Vulcani Institute and Ben Gurion University, we are developing new methods of growing tomatoes, which we hope will cut back manpower costs within a year.
"Until now, agriculture in our region has largely been based on two crops – tomatoes and peppers. We need to help our farmers develop new crops. For example, squash are traditionally grown in open fields, but now we are growing them in greenhouses. It makes a huge difference. In the open field, you get between two to four tons of squash per dunam, but in greenhouses, the yield can be as high as twelve tons per dunam.

The R&D exhibtion. Photo: Tania Susskind.

"In the future, we will be doing experiments with passion fruit, an essential ingredient of many fruit juices that is in high demand both for the local market and also abroad. And at next year's fair, visitors will see pineapple plants that will soon be giving fruit. One of our region's advantages is its climate, which allows us to get produce to the market at times of year when no one else can. We are also beginning a new collaboration with the organization that represents the local kibbutzim, which will take us into a whole new area of research – agriculture in fields.
"The Western Negev R&D was originally established in 1977 in order to promote greenhouse agriculture. We've done that for the past 35 years, but now, we'll also be focusing on field crops like carrots and potatoes. Our job has always been to investigate problems, to understand phenomena, to sample methods and to bring this information to the awareness of the agricultural public.”
The impressive KKL-JNF booth at the fair attracted many visitors, providing maps and brochures about activities in nature in the region. Itzik Inbar, a local farmer from Kibbutz Hatzerim, said that "here, we live KKL-JNF every day. My kibbutz is located 8 kilometers away from Beersheba, and we work together with KKL-JNF planting trees in the desert, which greatly improves out quality of life and also helps stop the process of desertification." The booth also provided visitors an opportunity to sign up for KKL-JNF touring newsletter.
Itzik Moshe, deputy director of KKL-JNF's Southern Region and Chairman of the board of the R&Ds, led a group of KKL-JNF staff on a tour of the fair. "The unique thing about the R&Ds is that they're located where the farmers live. Every discovery, every research study carried out, is shared with the farmers in a language they can understand, and is influenced by their problems and needs.

KKL-JNF booth. Photo: Tania Susskind.

Itzik Moshe. Photo: Tania Susskind.

"Personally, I am not directly involved in agricultural research, but the world is interconnected. The R&D developed a method of irrigation based on recycled water, which we would like to implement at KKL-JNF's Gilat tree nursery, where we use a tremendous amount of water. The project is ready to roll, and we are looking for a donor to support it."
Grapes in Greenhouses
One of the most exciting new projects at the Western Negev R&D is seedless edible grapes grown in greenhouses. The local farmers are very interested, because grapes are much less labor intensive than tomatoes and peppers, they demand less equipment, and they don't need attention 365 days a year. According to Baruch Luzon, deputy regional director of the Ministry of Agriculture, the advantage of growing grapes in the Negev is that it will be possible to market them out of season and to get a very good price for them. The grapes are sweet and tangy, and now that the experiment has proved a success, it is expected that they will be grown for commercial production in the near future.

Seedless edible grapes grown in greenhouses. Photo:Tania Susskind.

Coping with Kassam Rockets
The Western Negev R&D is located very close to the Gaza Strip, and one of the greenhouses was hit by a Kassam rocket fired by Palestinians during the recent Pillar of Defense military campaign. Hadar Fadida, an R&D employee, said that during the hostilities, the army had closed the road to the R&D, "but from where I live, there is a back road by which I can get to work. There are things that must be done which are critical for our research, so some of us decided to go to work anyway. However, we never made it, because the army had set up a roadblock and sent us straight back home. That was the day the rocket fell directly on the R&D." Visitors to the fair could see the remains of the rocket and the damage done to the greenhouse, which was where experiments on lessening manual labor for tomatoes were being conducted.
Flowers – Extending Shelf Life and Cold-Loving Peonies in the Desert
Peonies are a flower that love cold and are grown in Holland in the cool months preceding the Dutch summer. The R&D developed methods of growing them during the Israeli winter, in order to market them in Europe during a time of the year when they are not available. Various methods of providing the flowers with the degree of cold they are used to, were found, including special growing platforms that allow the farmers to move the flowers to refrigerators a few hours every day. In off-season, the farmers earn between one and two euros for each flower.

Peonies. Photo: Tania Susskind.

Suspended strawberries. Photo: Tania Susskind.

Once different species of flowers have successfully been grown in the Negev, it is of cardinal importance to extend their shelf life as long as possible. Towards that end, the R&D has an observation room where the influence of variables such as temperature, light intensity and moisture is measured. Conditions of shipment by air or sea are simulated in the observation room, which is also where local farmers can see the new strains that have been developed at the R&D.
Suspended Strawberries
Training strawberry vines to climb and grow off the ground in greenhouses began in Israel about eleven years ago. The advantages of this method are that the strawberries are much easier to pick, the fruit is more beautiful and cleaner than when it's on the ground, the shelf life is longer, and the fruit is less susceptible to disease and pests that attack it on the ground, so it's possible to use fewer pesticides. In addition, the strawberries are harvested from the end of October to the end of April, which gives local farmers a marketing advantage over growers in Israel's central region. There are now about fifty dunams of strawberries grown by this method in the western Negev.
KKL-JNF – Moral, Professional and Creative Support

Seedlings growing at the R&D station. Photo: Tania Susskind.

"Even if we didn’t receive a cent from KKL-JNF – and don’t forget, they are responsible for 50% of our budget - KKL-JNF would be the most important people in our lives." Myron Sofer, director of the R&D, summed up the R&D's connection to KKL-JNF. "They are our partners every step of the way. KKL-JNF also brings us visitors from all over the world, who are fascinated by what we're doing here. For us, KKL-JNF is like family."