Peonies in the Desert?

Monday, November 21, 2016 4:35 PM

Growing flowers in the Arava desert

The stark landscape of Israel’s Arava desert hardly lends itself to imagining colorful flowers of all shapes and sizes blooming in desert greenhouses, but thanks to innovative research sponsored by KKL-JNF, this fantasy has become a reality.
According to Ma’ayan Kitron, flower research coordinator at the Central Arava Research and Development Station, about 275 acres of flowers are currently being grown in Israel’s Arava desert. In the past, flowers were grown on larger tracts of land, but over the years, the area grew smaller. In recent years, the amount of Arava land devoted to growing flowers has remained stable.

“At the R&D station, which is supported by KKL-JNF, we concentrate on trying to find alternatives to already existing flower species, and our emphasis is on saving manpower,” Ma’ayan explains. “The main species we work with here are Helianthus, Eustoma, Trachelium and Limonuim, along with a few more species being grown on smaller areas including Ornithogalum, Asclepias tuberosa, Craspedia aurantia, and more.”

Flower growers in the Arava face a number of challenges: harvesting, classification and wrapping are labor intensive; harvesting must be right on schedule because when a flower is ready, it must be picked immediately; stiff competition with other countries where the cost of labor is less expensive; and zero tolerance for pests – the growing area must be entirely free of pests so that none of them would be accidentally exported abroad.

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 have been found, including special growing platforms that allow the farmers to move the flowers to refrigerators for a few hours every day. During the off-season, the farmers earn between one and two euros for each flower.

Once different species of flowers have successfully been grown in the Arava, it is of critical importance to extend their shelf life for as long as possible. Towards that end, the R&D station 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 learn about the new strains that have been developed at the R&D.

Lisianthus is another example of a flower that has been successfully acclimated to the Arava’s harsh climate. There are three main criteria for lisianthus - they should be about 80 cms long; there should be a suitable ratio between their weight and their length, so that they're neither too thin nor too thick; and there should be at least five buds on each stalk. Israel's advantage in this market is its ability to market the flowers during the winter months, and the R&D station is experimenting with planting them towards the end of August.

Yuval Yunash’s flower business was originally started by his father, and today it is owned by Yuval, his father and his brother. “Although I was born in the Arava, I went to study agriculture in Rehovot,” Yuval says. “I liked living there, but I like living in the Arava much more. The Arava has an advantage because we can grow flowers when most other countries can’t, and the sharp difference in temperature between day and night is also beneficial for many types of flowers.”

Yuval adds that to grow flowers in the Arava, one has to stick to a very tight schedule. “From the moment the flowers are picked, they have to be in Holland within 48 hours. Most of our flowers are exported to Europe and the United States, and competition is very stiff. Israel used to be a flower-growing empire, but now Africa has taken over the market, especially Ethiopia and Kenya. Even though it’s challenging, I love what I do. It’s a combination of maintaining high standards of quality while always being innovative. You experiment with 15 different species of flowers, and two of them might be profitable commercially. I am passionate about my work and could go on for hours talking about it. I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”