Published On: Fri, May 13th, 2016

The Fall of Israeli Agriculture

Israeli farmer Oren Sabah is seeing both his life's worth and Israeli agriculture crumble before his eyes. It is up to both the consumer and the Israeli government to rectify this situation, as a nation which isn't connected to its soil isn't connected at all.

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A third generation Israeli farmer in Metula is quitting farming due to the collapse of Israeli agriculture (Photo Aviahu Shapira)

I’m sitting on a tractor surrounded by tons of cucumbers spread out on the ground. In a moment, I’ll supposed to drive over them with the tractor and crush them. Every bone in my body is refusing to put the tractor in gear and run them over.

How can this be? Over the course of many long months, under driving rain and roasting sun I grew them; I cared for them. My heart is tearing itself apart.

The Israeli government has decided to give up on agriculture – there’s no need for it. Why should there be, especially since we can import obscene amounts of vegetables from the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan?

For us, the farmers, we’re forced to destroy our hard work with our own hands. We’re forced to come full circle in the most horrible way imaginable – day after day after day. We go out into the fields before the sun rises, pick our crops, destroy them, and return home broken.

This is the life of a farmer in Israel in 2016. Dozens of farmers have already given up, refusing to work in a profession forces them to be so cruel to their handiwork. To explain, I need to take you to the beginning.

 

Prepping the Ground

It’s late winter. We’re plowing the soil and laying down the irrigation pipes. We’ve learned from experience not to use chemicals or mulch, so we use a grafting process.

We buy pumpkin vines and cucumber seedlings from industrial nurseries. We cut the tops off the pumpkins, and we take the cucumber seeds and put them on the pumpkin tops. Then, we take the seedlings into a fusion room so that we can grow them in a controlled environment. We do all of this because the pumpkin is able to survive in soil that has been chemically treated – although we don’t chemically treat our soil any longer.

These seedlings cost a lot of money. Instead of costing 17 or 18 Agurot, they cost between NIS1.8 to 2 per unit. While this is expensive, this is what you need to pay if you want to stay healthy.

When I pick the seedlings up from the bed, my heart fills with happiness. It’s as if a new child has been born to my family, even if it’s for the millionth time. This seedling is new life in this world, and you can definitely feel it – a pride and excitement which doesn’t diminish with time.

From this moment on, the plant is taken care of all day every day. It’s looked after, touched, and observed. It’s checked to make sure it’s the right color; the soil is checked to make sure there’s enough water; it’s smelled to make sure it has enough fertilizer.

All of these “children, ” happy and joyful in their rows. Personally, I speak to these plants, eat and drink with them, live with them more than even some of my own family members.

 

 

01 Jezreel Valley (Photo: Israel Berdugo)

 

For me, even if 119 of the plants are strong and just one of them is weak or sick, I feel for it. I watch it and try to save it. I feel a real responsibility for it. It’s important for me to see every flowerbed bloom. It’s only when I see all of the seedlings standing at the same height, the same width, and all of them blooming that I’m relaxed.

Cucumbers, like every vegetable, know how to send out distress signals when it’s not in the ground correctly or when the conditions aren’t right. It always knows how to speak, but through its own language. It will tell you “this is hard for me; give me oxygen, food, water.” I understand these cries and nurture them.

Afterwards comes the trellising. Every day the plant has to be trellised on a thread, otherwise it would fall. Several times a day I go into the greenhouse and go between the rows, give the cucumbers water, fertilizer, and care for them. I then close the net to the greenhouse to prevent against insects. It’s a large investment, but I do it willingly to keep the cucumbers alive.

 

A farmer from the beginning

I’m 46 and a resident of Moshav Achitov outside of Hadera. The moshav was founded in the 1950’s by new immigrants from Iran and Iraq. At first we grew sugar beets, chickpeas, and barley. By the end of the 1960’s, we started to grow vegetables under plastic, and in the 1970’s, the first greenhouses were established in the moshav.

The agriculture in the moshav developed until the 1990’s, when we were farming about 870 acres. On every acre we were able to grow 100 tons of cucumbers in three planting cycles per year. Try and think how many cucumbers that is!

60-70 percent of all of the cucumbers on the Israeli market came from Achitov. It was an empire.

We began to consolidate about a decade ago, when the deterioration of Israeli agriculture really began. Every once in a while we would have another farmer give up, until we were left with 50 working farmers. The rest closed up and moved to other industries. Why? Because farming is no longer profitable. “How can it not be profitable? Vegetables in Israel are expensive!” those who don’t understand shout at us.

It’s called “mark up.” We split the difference, and you still yell at us. The only ones who make money are the people in control of the markets themselves and the middlemen. We make the minimum.

Another reason for the collapse of Israeli agriculture is because of the massive importation of produce from the Palestinian Authority, Gaza, and Jordan. While Israeli farmers have expectations for high quality produce and strict health requirements (and rightly so, no one wants to eat a cucumber watered in sewage or a pepper which has traces of cyanide), no one checks the requirements of the vegetables which Israel is importing from these outside places.

 

Produce in an Israeli supermarket. How much is truely Israeli,   and how much is from Jordan

 

There are other factors of course. For instance, we have no other option than to employ people from Southeast Asia. Israelis don’t want to work in agriculture, no matter how hard we try to convince them. “It’s too hot” or “it’s too cold” they all complain. The conditions really are difficult. Look at how I look today, with all my experience, from the horrible heat in the greenhouses.

Yet the government has cut the number of workers we’re allowed to employ, as if we have any interest in hiring too many people.

It’s absurd.

Until last year, we paid an extra 10 percent in taxes from every paycheck – because the government can force us to. At least that went away.

But what the government did to balance this out instead of lowering prices was raise production costs. It’s absolutely absurd.

Because of this, more and more farms are closing. Not only here in the center of the country, but also in the Galilee in the north and in the Arava in the south.

 

The myth of Sisyphus

We’ve finally gotten to my favorite part – the harvest. From the day it’s planted as a seedling until it’s time to harvest, 24-26 summer days have passed, and we have to work fast. The harvest happens every 48 hours over the course of two months and you can’t miss it. If you don’t pick the cucumber from the plant at the right time, it becomes worthless. Even if you’re only eight hours late, it still won’t be good enough to take to market.

So we pick and we pick, from morning until night. 10, 400 cucumbers per acre. Imagine how many plants we go over every day to check to make sure they’re ready to be picked, and imagine the responsibility I have, as a farmer, for these plants.

We deal with tens of millions of these plants every year on the Moshav. I treat them as one giant extension of my family.

Within 26 days, we’re done harvesting. We pack up all the cucumbers and load them on trucks. Since we produce the majority of the cucumbers in Israel, we have double the responsibility; the planting cycle is continuous. With one hand we’re picking and harvesting, and with the other, we’re planting the next round. Constantly. We can’t make the excuse that “we didn’t feel like working” or miss our harvest window, because then there won’t be cucumbers in Israeli markets.

I loved harvest time, but not anymore. Not today. Since last March the market has been flooded with cucumbers. It’s also flooded due to the fact that the weather has been warmer than usual, and the amount of produce able to be grown has gone up, especially in Jordan, Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority. In these places, there have been unprecedented amounts of produce grown. There have been enough cucumbers grown this season, and the price has been reasonable. Nevertheless, the market owners are stocking their shelves with produce made not by Israelis, but by our neighbors. Why?

 

Cucumbers growing in a greenhouse

 

The depressing result is that it makes more financial sense for me to harvest the cucumbers and throw them away than it is to pay to pack them and transport them to market where they definitely won’t sell due to supply being too high and demand being too low.

The first option, of course, is to give these cucumbers to charity, and this is something which we actually do. As a moshav, we at Achitov work with charities every year.

They know us well, and come and pick everything they want themselves. We do it happily, because this is how it should be.

The charity Leket Israel, for instance, get a notice every time we need to uproot saplings, and they come and collect tons of cucumbers for the needy.

But thousands of tons are left. What do we do with them? Another option is to uproot the plants prematurely. It’s terrible. It’s like shooting your own children just because you don’t have enough money to feed them that week.

We pick the plants, pile them up, then attach special equipment to the tractor and destroy the plants so that they don’t become a health hazard as they start to rot. It’s hard to find words after doing something like this. You feel like your heart was ripped out of your body. How can a sane person take this?

I wake up every day at four in the morning, harvest tons of cucumbers, and know that at the end of the day that I’ll have to destroy them. I feel like Sisyphus who rolls a boulder up a hill every day with the knowledge that it will just roll back down to the bottom. Time after time. It continues like this for a month.

Even after all of this, the State throws salt on the wound. My heart is broken – and not only because of the finances. It’s in the soul. Yet the fact of the matter is that we can’t stop. Impossible.

We’ve destroyed thousands of tons of produce, and every single farmer here has a broken heart. Just as a doctor in a hospital fights for every sick person’s life, so do we fight every day for the life of every plant. All of a sudden, we’re the ones who have to destroy them.

 

Fields in the Upper Galilee (Aviahu Shapira)

 

We don’t want more money from the state. We don’t want aid. We are only asking to be able to work honorably and for the government to act responsibly. We are Zionism. We guard and defend it. Agriculture is all that’s left in the moshavim and kibbutzim, the ones which guard our borders, which settled the land and made it bloom. What will be in our place?

Will the government continue to on this path and make us irrelevant? Does it even make sense for the State of Israel to be completely dependent on Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and Gaza?

If we get vegetables full of poison tomorrow, where will we get replacements? How much will it cost? We can’t let this happen. I’m saying this as a citizen and farmer who’s life’s work is being crushed, quite literally, under the wheels of a tractor, and in front of the country.

As they say, “a true farmer feels the land in his soul. Take the farmer from his land, and it’s as if his life was taken away.”

 

By Oren Sabah

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