700 Club Special
Made in Israel: Agriculture
By Gordon Robertson & Erin Zimmerman
The 700 Club
In 1867, Mark Twain toured the land of Israel. Known back then as Palestine, here is how he described it.
“a desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds… a silent, mournful expanse… there was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes… desolate and unlovely.”
Today, Mark Twain wouldn’t recognize this land. Out of the rocky soil, out of the swamps, and out of the deserts, Israelis have created gardens, vineyards and farms with some of the most innovative techniques in the world.
“It was just this country with incredible dynamism and energy and excitement and food and people, and a sense of family, and ultimately a sense of belonging,” notes Jonathan Medved, one of Israel’s leading high-tech venture capitalists. “It’s been said that the modern state of Israel was born on the kibbutz. So, it’s only natural that much of Israel’s innovation was born there as well.”
“The kibbutz is in a lot of ways the cornerstone of a lot of things in Israeli society, agrees Sara Goldsmith, director of Bio-Tour, a company that provides guided tours of the kibbutz.
“People came back wanting to create a collective and an equal society,” continues Medved. “And these kibbutzim became a very effective way to defend the land and to start getting young people engaged in agriculture. Remember, Jews were forbidden in most countries of the world to own land or to work the land. Jews couldn’t be farmers. So all of the sudden to see a generation of Jews farming the land in a collective environment was incredible.”
Before Israel even became a state, Jews by the thousands came to live there on communal farms. But when they arrived in the promised land it wasn’t exactly flowing with milk and honey. The coastal plains were swampy. The Galilee and the Judean Hills were rocky and the southern half of the country was mostly desert.
“Since the people of Israel left our homeland 2,000 years ago, the area was mismanaged, explains Itzhik Moshe, the Southern Director of the Jewish National Fund. " So we wanted to preserve and rehabilitate this Holy Land.”
Early Jewish settlers faced a number of obstacles, from bad soil to Bedouin raiders. But they had an even bigger enemy that threatened to end the Jewish state before it began: mosquitoes.
In the early decades of the 20th century, Israel was a breeding ground for mosquitoes carrying malaria. They overtook the coastal plains and the Jordan Valley, the only land available for Jews to buy, since the local Arabs had decided it was uninhabitable.
In 1920, more than a third of all Jewish residents of Palestine had malaria. So with no other choice, they went to work. They drained the swamps, sprayed the land and changed the flow of water in irrigation canals to interrupt the mosquitoes’ breeding. They were so successful that a commission from the League of Nations visited Palestine to learn what they did. Less than 20 years after Israel’s statehood, the country was officially malaria-free.
Once the threat of malaria was gone, Jewish settlers were free to focus on making the desert bloom.
- In the coastal plains, citrus groves replaced the swamps.
- The Jordan Valley, once the center of the malaria epidemic, now became the country’s breadbasket.
- The Negev desert blossomed with newly planted forests and vineyards.
- The Arava, once the most arid part of Israel, became the site of a flourishing vegetable industry.
All of these things were accomplished in the first 20 years of Israel’s statehood. In that time, Israelis more than doubled their standard of living and now they’re using their experience to help other countries.
In the 1970s, they created a new breed of cherry tomato that’s disease-resistant and has a longer shelf life. They also bred a new kind of potato that can be grown in hot, dry climates and irrigated by salt water.
Vegetables are now being grown in dry countries like Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco.
Israeli scientists not only found ways to grow more crops, they also found new ways to preserve them.
Grain-pro cocoons provide an inexpensive way for farmers to keep their grain market-fresh by keeping out water, air and insects. The Israeli cocoons are being used in Africa, the Far East and even Pakistan, a nation with no diplomatic ties to Israel.
“Israeli society began to change,” explains Medved. “It became more capitalistic. It became more focused on free enterprise and on entrepreneurship and on the individual taking responsibility for himself, and therefore benefiting the overall society. The kibbutz over time began to change. There have been many exciting companies that have been built in kibbutzim.”
One of those companies is now doing business around the world.
“If you went to the average Israeli 10, 12 years ago and said to them “organic,” they wouldn’t have a clue what you were talking about,” Goldsmith points out. “Here, we’ve been doing organic farming for more than 40 years.”
Kibbutz Sde Elihayu was founded by German refugees in 1934. Many of their early members were survivors of the Holocaust.
“The biggest problem that we had when we started the organic (farming) was, what do you do if you’re not using chemicals?” Goldsmith quips. “How do you get rid of the pests?”
Their answer was to fight bugs with more bugs.
“Every single thing in nature has a natural enemy,” Goldsmith explains. “What eats or what attacks these pests that are attacking our crops?
They started breeding different insects in the bomb shelter of the kibbutz. The idea was to breed predators to destroy the pests that ate their crops. The result was a new company called Bio-Bee.
“We went to the Israeli farmers and said, you want to buy some bugs?” Goldsmith recalls. “They said, ‘What are you, crazy? We don’t have enough bugs in the field, you want us to buy bugs?’”
Eventually, they won over farmers in Israel and in 32 other countries as well. In California 60 percent of the strawberry fields are treated with products from Bio-Bee. The company also found a way to deal with one of the region’s most devastating insects: the Mediterranean fruit fly.
“We take the males of the species, edit, and we sterilize them and then we release the sterile males into the environment.” Goldsmith shares. “There’s no future generation, and slowly, slowly, we lower the population without using harmful chemicals.”
Bio-Bee also solved another agricultural problem: how to pollinate greenhouse plants.
“The classic example we like to give is tomato plants,” says Goldsmith. “Tomato plants in nature, in the field, are pollinated by the wind. In Israel, the majority of our tomatoes are not grown in the fields; they’re grown in greenhouses. And in greenhouses, in a climate-controlled environment, you don’t have that wind, you don’t have natural pollination.”
Their solution was to breed bumblebees.
Goldsmith continues, “They collect pollen for food. They go and work, even in the cold weather; they don’t have stores of honey in the hive; they have to go and work. We’re saving the farmers money, because instead of paying people, the bees are doing all the work and the bees, unlike people, they don’t miss a single flower. Once the farmers started using bees for pollination, the yield of the tomato crops increased by 25 percent.
In Hebrew we say (Hebrew saying), “How great and wonderful are your creations, God,” and it really shows that every single thing has a purpose and a reason; these tiny little things, and look how much good they do for us, for the farmers, for the world, for the environment. It’s really, really amazing.
Farmers at the kibbutz not only targeted insects. They also found a creative way to get rid of rodents as well.
“What we used to do is take a bottle of poison and a teaspoon, and somebody’s job was to walk up and down the rows, and every time they saw a mouse hole, to take a teaspoon of poison and throw it down the hole,” Goldsmith explains. “Obviously that’s not ecologically friendly. On top of that, if it rains, or if we irrigate our fields, all of that poison’s going in the groundwater. So what is a natural solution to rodents? The natural solution that we found is the barn owl. The barn owl is an amazing raptor. Two owls can capture an average of 2,000 to 5,000 mice a year. That’s a lot of rodents.”
There was just one problem with the owls.
“They fly away,” says Goldsmith. “One of the places they would fly to is Jordan, which is very close by, and in Jordan, they were shooting them. In Arab folklore, the barn owl is a harbinger of death. And they’re very superstitious about barn owls, so they see a barn owl, they shoot it. So what do we do? Very simply, we went to Jordan and invited Jordanian farmers to come to Sde Eliyahu, and see what we’re doing here. This was over 20 years ago. Today, we have over 2,600 nesting boxes across the country and the numbers keep growing. Also, it’s become a wonderful program of regional cooperation, also with Jordan, also with the Palestinian Authority. This has been an amazing, amazing success story.
We like to tell people it’s not the dove bringing peace any more to the Middle East, it’s the barn owl.
We’re a light unto the nations, we’re supposed to be anyway. If we want to really save the environment, if we want to really help the world, then we can’t keep these things to ourselves. We have to share this knowledge. I think by helping others, we’re helping ourselves as well.”
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