Organic Agriculture in the Arava Desert

Tuesday, November 01, 2016 9:58 AM

Living in harmony with the environment

Organic or biodynamic produce is increasingly in demand around the world, for health reasons and out of concern for the environment. With the help of its Friends worldwide, KKL-JNF supports cutting-edge agricultural research that makes it possible to grow high-quality organic fruits and vegetables for local and overseas markets, even in the harsh climate of Israel’s Arava desert.
High-tech agriculture, technological hothouses, computerized packing houses, experiments, grafts, innovative developments, climate control, and water desalination are the name of the game in the 21st century.  All the farms in Israel’s Arava region are meticulously monitored for cleanliness, ecology, garbage collection, and pest control.  There is also an increased level of environmental awareness within the Arava communities.  The regional council has distributed separate containers for the disposal of organic waste and paper.  All plastic products and cardboard cartons are recycled, and greenhouse gasses are converted into compost.
Organic agriculture in the Arava is a major focus of the research being done at the Central and Northern Arava Research and Development Station, which, like all of Israel’s R&D stations, is supported and financed by KKL-JNF with the help of its friends throughout the world. In order to reduce the usage of pesticides, experiments in biological pest control are being carried out, which include the use of the natural enemies of pests that damage vegetables, for example, certain types of bugs that contribute towards destroying the pests. Some of the experiments being done at the R&D station include growing strawberries suspended in air, which facilitates harvesting and impedes pests, protecting vineyards by heat shock instead of pesticides and testing the suitability of various fruit, vegetable and flower cultivars for dry climates.
A good example of an Arava community based on organic agriculture is Neot Semadar, which is like a huge manmade oasis in the desert. With the help of its friends in Canada and Germany, KKL-JNF has been involved with Neot Semadar for many years, preparing the land for growing crops, and building agricultural roads, constructed wetlands and a lake. Neot Semadar’s organic farm emphasizes sensitivity towards the existing ecological balance in nature, reflecting the community’s commitment to cooperative work and a relationship that also includes the environment. In spite of the acute environmental conditions (extreme temperatures, scarce rainfall, saline soil, and low quality water), they successfully grow a large variety of organic crops, including apricots, nectarines, peaches, plums, pears, apples and almonds, as well as olives, citrus fruits, date groves, and vineyards. In addition, there is a goat herd and a vegetable garden with a variety of organic herbs and spices.
To increase the ground’s fertility, the community of Neot Semadar makes its own compost to enrich the soil. The water supply for irrigation is based on water from drilling (chlorine: 250 mg/liter), brackish water and recycled water. Small-scale organic food industries include a dairy for fresh goat milk products such as yogurts and cheeses, a winery that produces red and white wines and fruit products such as juices, nectars, jams, dried fruit and olive oil. Neot Semedar’s reputation for producing high quality organic goods is based on its unique advantage of its location - a farmland that is far away from any cities and industrial pollution.
Ein Yahav is one of the oldest communities in the Arava. As is the case with almost all the Arava communities, KKL-JNF created the infrastructure for housing and agriculture, including greenhouses to grow peppers, cherry tomatoes, eggplants, melons, flowers and more. Ein Yahav also has an organic farm for individual picking, which is called Melo Hatenne (Cornucopia). Dozens of cultivars of cherry tomatoes and peppers are grown there, and everything is organic. The proprietors, Tomer and Ronit Tenne, tell visitors about the history of the agricultural communities of the Arava,  as well as organic agriculture, biological pest control and pollination by means of bumblebees, which they raise in beehives.
Dr. Shimon Pivonia is a plant protection specialist at the Central and Northern Arava Research and Development Station who is an expert in plant disease and pests that attack fruit tree plantations and vegetables. His mission is to help to find solutions to the problems of agriculture in the Arava, where the desert climate causes unique problems. Peppers, for example, are planted when it’s hot and harvested when it’s already quite cold, especially at night, and each season brings its own particular diseases.
“In order to deal with plant disease,” Shimon says, “especially in a region like the Arava for which there are few if any precedents, you have to identify the cause of the disease and then find a solution. For example, we were growing melons that were attacked by something that was destroying them. In the past, we used a pesticide called methyl bromide that kills almost everything, but it was phased out of use by most countries in the early 2000s. I discovered that the disease was being caused by a fungus, and eventually I found a fungicide that did the job.
“People have to understand that you can’t always go directly from pesticides to organic agriculture. There is a range here. When the deadly methyl bromide was being used, farmers needed 50 kilograms per dunam, and the cost was 2,000 – 3,000 shekels. The amount needed of the fungicide is only about a half a liter per dunam, and the cost is only 200 shekels, so it’s already much better for the environment and much cheaper for the farmers. You have to first find an immediate, effective solution that buys time for researchers to find more sustainable solutions. In this case, we are now working on grafting a species of pumpkin squash that is resilient to the fungus onto the melon’s rootstock. If this works in the field as well as it does at the R&D station, then we won’t need the fungicide and we have a perfectly sustainable and organic way of dealing with this problem.”
The fungicide that Dr. Pivonia discovered is now being used instead of more dangerous pesticides in hundreds of thousands of acres of farming land around the world. When asked if he was a millionaire thanks to his discovery, Dr. Pivonia laughed. “I just do my work here at the R&D station. Our findings are published on our website and sometimes in scientific publications. Since the R&D receives funding from KKL-JNF and the Israeli government, we are a non-profit, so everyone can benefit from our findings. The farmers trust us and know they can depend on the results of the research that we do here.”