With just over 5,000 farms, Israel achieves a high degree of self-suffi­ciency in food. This requires inno­v­a­tive solu­tions, espe­cially when it comes to irri­ga­tion. We present some of them in this article.

Negev desert? Sure, it exists. But on the outskirts, it may have been a desert in the past. Today, it is clev­erly used agri­cul­tural land, although it is in a semi-arid zone. “We only get 350 millime­tres of precip­i­ta­tion here each year,” says Mario Polacco Rami, standing in one of the barley fields being harvested on this day in early May, with an outside temper­a­ture above 25 degrees Celsius. Here in the more northern part of the Negev, near the city of Ofakim, the 69-year-old keeps a close eye on the harvest across vast and hilly terrain. Two combines are in use, and in one smooth step, straw is pressed into square bales weighing around 350kg each.

Sewage sludge for soil improve­ment

Rami is respon­sible for a cultivation area of around 4,000ha , which are farmed in a joint venture by the three kibbutzim Ruchama, Dorot and Tselim.

Half of it is irri­gated. The crop rota­tion is clas­sical: Wheat twice, then barley, finally followed by peas. Treated sewage sludge from not-so-distant Jerusalem adds a bit of organic matter to the humus-defi­cient soil. “Lousy soil,” as Rami puts it. Walking briskly, he approaches a square bale. “This is actu­ally the most valu­able compo­nent of our harvest,” says the man with the distinc­tive floppy hat as he reaches into the bale of straw. “That’s because roughly 60 percent of our harvest revenue comes from the straw. For one bale, we receive 300 to 400 shekels (€81 to €108),” he adds.

Mario Polacco Rami is respon­sible for a cultivation area of around 4,000ha.

Overall Rami is very pleased with the process of baling right after threshing. “We reduce the labour require­ment and have more straw, higher quality, no residues between the stubble and, to top we collect the seeds of the weeds,” he explains. The clean stubble field that provides ideal condi­tions for reduced tillage prac­tices, which he firmly believes will be imple­mented in the future via autonomous driving.

Farmer Rami, by no means a digital native, was always open to new ideas. With this mentality, his gener­a­tion trans­formed parts of the Israelian desert into farm­land. The key to success clearly lies – in addi­tion to all other impor­tant tech­nical and agro­nomic inno­va­tions – in irri­ga­tion and the use of water, a scarce and valu­able resource. Yet the demand is already over­whelming, and still increasing. This is the case at the Tzabar-Kama farm in Mort Kiriat Malachi, which is run by 60-year-old Eyal Muchan and his 30 employees, plus another 400 seasonal workers.

Eyal Muchan stores 12 million cubic meters of treated water in 8 arti­fi­cial lakes.

Irri­ga­tion with waste­water

“We are the largest farm with irri­ga­tion systems in Israel,” Muchan tells us as we head to one of eight large water reser­voirs, where twelve million cubic meters of treated waste­water from the Jerusalem metro­pol­itan area are collected and deliv­ered as needed to the slender drip irri­ga­tion system with a diam­eter of only 20 millime­tres, primarily for cotton, but also for chick­peas and wheat. The waste­water treat­ment plant is located about ten kilo­me­tres from the metrop­olis of Jerusalem; the waste­water flows down­hill without any pumps to the catch basins across an eleva­tion change of about 700 meters. The plan is to build a floating photo­voltaic system on the basin in the future.

“We can only achieve our excel­lent harvests with substan­tial amounts of water,” Muchan explains, under­scoring the central impor­tance of irri­ga­tion. In good years, Tzabar-Kama farmers harvest 35dt of sunflowers, 70dt of wheat, and 6.5dt of cotton per hectare. In addi­tion to sunflowers, wheat, melons, cotton, and chick­peas, the farm also produces wine, bananas, jojoba, pome­gran­ates, almonds, and olives. There is also a 14ha avocado plan­ta­tion completely covered by a photo­voltaic struc­ture, in which the company invested 60 million shekels (17.052 million €). “Our wide range of crops not only makes us more stable in the face of fluc­tu­ating prices, but also helps us better compen­sate for cata­strophic fail­ures of indi­vidual crops, as was the case with almonds last year,” Muchan says, explaining the company’s product strategy.

We can only achieve our excel­lent harvests with substan­tial amounts of water.

Eyal Muchan

In addi­tion, hemp has been culti­vated in a strictly sealed green house for several years, a substance which is produced as a dietary supple­ment with cannabidiol (CBD) for a growing market. “As energy prices increase, we will have to further opti­mize our work­flows and continue to make use of all the tech­nical possi­bil­i­ties at our disposal in the future,” Muchan states. But what he finds most impor­tant of all, he says, is “finding good employees and, above all, young people who have a solid educa­tion and are committed to joining us.” Culti­vating the next gener­a­tion of farmers is also a chal­lenge in Israel because many young people still choose to leave rural areas to move to the city, where they are lost to the IT industry, among others.

Dr Alon Ben-Gal from the Volcani Research Station in Gilat is researching agri­cul­ture in arid and semi-arid condi­tions.

Also in the North-East of Israel vegetable cultivation requires addi­tional water.

The begin­nings

A phenom­enon that could not have been fore­seen back in the days of Yitzhak Elazari Volcani, who came to Pales­tine from Latvia in 1908 and estab­lished an agri­cul­tural research station there; it later grew into today’s Agri­cul­tural Research Orga­ni­za­tion, located at the Volcani Center, south of Tel-Aviv. Volcani saw to the recla­ma­tion of the desert and the cultivation of mixed crops. Israelian agri­cul­ture, and ulti­mately the whole society, continues to benefit from that incred­ibly diffi­cult pioneering work to this day; as a result, the country has managed to achieve a high degree of self-suffi­ciency with just over 5,000 farms. However, as the Israelian popu­la­tion continues to increase, so do the chal­lenges – espe­cially due to climate change.

Scien­tists like Dr. Shmuel Assouline (Asso­ciate Director for Inter­na­tional Rela­tions at the Volcani Insti­tute), who moved from Morocco to Israel when he was only 16 years old, never cease devel­oping new concepts to increase effi­ciency and yields so that the country can be prepared for the future. A key factor is water, which is also provided thanks to a steady increase in the capacity of desali­na­tion plants. Israelian desali­na­tion plants currently generate an output of 550 million cubic meters annu­ally; by the end of the decade, the volume is esti­mated to increase to 750 million cubic meters. This requires a lot of energy, which should be gener­ated through a massive expan­sion of solar energy.

Water is expen­sive; wasting it is a crime.

Dr. Alon Ben-Gal

A cubic meter of desali­nated water currently costs about 50 cents, Dr. Alon Ben-Gal works out. He is an employee of the Volcani Research Center in Gilat, which conducts research on agri­cul­ture under arid and semi-arid condi­tions. The rela­tion­ship of water to CO2 and the nitrogen cycle are being studied, in addi­tion to all aspects of supplying water to crops culti­vated under desert-like condi­tions.

The lively researcher, who grew up in the USA in the northern state of Illi­nois, drives out to his test fields, navi­gating his way down bumpy dirt roads. One of his test fields is equipped with a pivot irri­ga­tion system. “The tech­nology is there, no doubt about it, along with the data collected by various sensors, satel­lites and other systems, like drones and thermal imaging. The real problem is finding out how farmers can ulti­mately make quick and precise deci­sions with this wealth of data,” says Ben-Gal, as he intro­duces his main research objec­tive. “I want to design an eval­u­a­tion system for the geo-data that will allow precise irri­ga­tion that can imme­di­ately be adjusted according to the situ­a­tion and require­ments,” says the busy researcher. His credo: Water is expen­sive; wasting it is crime.

Drip irri­ga­tion system for vegetable growing.

Water manage­ment

The prove­nience of water used for agri­cul­ture is quite varied in Israel: In addi­tion to urban waste­water and desali­nated seawater, water collected during heavy rains as well as saline ground­water and well water also play their part in the “miracle of Israeli agri­cul­ture,” as Amos Peleg puts it, former CEO at the Israelian John Deere deal­er­ship Mifram Agen­cies Ltd. Every­where, from the Negev in the south to the Golan Heights and the Lebanese border in the north, you can see elab­o­rate irri­ga­tion tech­nology, pumping stations, count­less reels with hoses and small and large basins. Here, every­thing related to water is strictly governed by the Israeli Ministry of Agri­cul­ture, under whose lead­er­ship a water supply authority oper­ates; this, in turn, is care­fully super­vised by a regu­la­tory authority. In other words: Both policy makers and the general public monitor exactly how, where, and how much water is being used. Because of this, misuse is almost incon­ceiv­able. What happens instead is that research pursuits receive a great deal of atten­tion, asking ques­tions such as whether toma­toes are best harvested dried right on the vine. Now, wouldn’t that be another clever approach to conserving water in short supply?

Not far from the Jordan River, the narrow border river with Jordan, Gelad Bechor is respon­sible for a 50-hectare vegetable and fruit farm near one of the oldest villages, which was founded by Zion­ists around 1900. You can find limes and mangos in the orchards, and water­melon, spinach, oregano and thyme planted in the fields.
Unlike other areas, this north­eastern region has a compar­a­tively high annual precip­i­ta­tion of up to 450 millime­ters. Never­the­less, it cannot thrive without sophis­ti­cated drip irri­ga­tion. For this reason, there is a sensi­tivity to the most precious commodity here just as there is every­where in Israel.

Entre­pre­neurs breed grasshop­pers in empty chicken farms.

The Israeli company Home Biogas develops simple micro biogas plants, which are currently in increasing demand in many African coun­tries.

New ideas for coping with scarcity

In this regard, an aware­ness of the scarcity of water appears to be bene­fi­cial for the whole spec­trum of agri­cul­tural activ­i­ties, as evidenced by new and promising ideas. For example, an Israeli company called Home Biogas has devel­oped simple yet popular micro-biogas systems that are increas­ingly in demand in many African coun­tries. For the simple reason that the methane from the small mini biogas-producing systems can be used in lieu of fire­wood from rare groves for cooking. This is a real and sustain­able made-in-Israel alter­na­tive, partic­u­larly for the rural regions that still lack a grid connec­tion.

And then there are daring entre­pre­neurs like Drar Tamir, founder of Hargol, a company trying to produce “biblical nour­ish­ment” on unoc­cu­pied poultry farms: Locusts. Yes, locusts: not as a plague, but as insects with an incred­ibly high protein content of 72 percent rela­tive to their total body weight. Seeing locusts on your plate certainly takes some getting used to. Though people may raise their eyebrows at the idea today, locusts could be consid­ered a snack and valu­able source of protein in the world of tomorrow, espe­cially in the face of the daunting chal­lenges the world faces. Either way, Israeli agri­cul­ture is thriving despite scarcity and a perma­nent state of emer­gency, which is driving many in the Israeli agri­cul­tural world to come up with extra­or­di­nary ideas and ways of using the land. Including several surprises!