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Bringing Water To The Desert:
Israeli Farmers’ Crops Thrive In Negev Using JNF Research And Technology

By Sarina Roffé

Israeli Farmer in GreenhouseThe first bottles of premium olive oil under the “Halutza” trademark hit the market in December, illustrating another way that Jewish National Fund is working to bring life and economic success to the Negev.

This year’s produce comes from the large olive groves of Kibbutz Revivim, from Ashalim and all the way south to a reviving Ovdat. Not only are olives once again growing here - as they did over 3000 years ago  - but they are growing on over 1350 acres. The olive trees are thriving, creating dark green patches, particularly prominent against the background of desert sand.

And not one drop of fresh water reaches the roots of these olive trees! The main source is brackish water from wells drilled by JNF at a depth of 700-800 meters beneath the arid ground to an ancient geological salty aquifer where the water temperature is 42 degrees centigrade.

Taking advantage of the Negev’s natural resources is but one example of the significant results from last year’s investment by JNF of $6.85 million in research and development. JNF established the Center for Experiments in Desert Farming on sandy land in Ramat Hanegev, near Ashalim. After endless attempts to find water in the desert, JNF drilled a brackish water well at an expense of more than $1.61 million, and researchers, scientists, and technicians with vision came together to do some magic. In the field, one may encounter JNF researchers next to researchers from the Ben-Gurion University, the Vulkani Institute, and the Hebrew University.

Farmers were initially skeptical because the water was very salty and they believed that salty water would kill any vegetation. As a result, the water was only used to heat the hothouses that are irrigated with fresh water during the cold season.

“I remember how afraid we were that the water would drip out of the heating pipes onto the crops,” recalls Yaakov Moskowitz, director of the Ramat Hanegev Research and Development Station. Yaakov is himself “salt of the earth” from Kibbutz Revivim, who talks about his work.

Israeli FarmersOn the day that the bottles of olive oil from the groves of Kibbutz Revivim and Ashalim hit the market, the country’s leaders were gathered at Sde Boqer to mark 30 years since David Ben-Gurion’s death. The first Prime Minister was a man whose heritage is closely tied to the vision of the flowering and settlement of the Negev. Those who continue to realize Ben-Gurion’s vision today and transform it into reality are called “the salt of the earth.” It turns out that the combined shared energies of these people are performing miracles in the Negev by literally producing fruit and life out of actual salt, that is, salty water.

At the experimental station, organic tomato plants that grow in the ground and on elevated platforms reach a total length of ten meters and produce fruit over a ten-month growing period. They are all watered with salty water. The percentage of salt varies in order to achieve the most desirable mixture. The results of these experiments that continue to this day can be seen in the field.

Ramat Hanegev farmers also produce 15,000 tons of ‘Desert Sweet’ tomatoes in 250 acres of hothouses, ranging from organic tomatoes to especially small strains of cherry tomatoes that are sold at a high price to restaurants and hotels throughout the world. The Ramat Hanegev tomato is sweeter than those from the central and northern parts of Israel, specifically because it is watered with salty water. The tomato plants react to the salt and pressure that the salt puts on its cells by producing more sugars. This was the first plant to be successfully grown in salty water.

Dense screens preventing the entry of insects shade the hothouses at the Ramat Hanegev experimental farm. The only insect allowed in - to pollinate the flowers - is a special type of bee that doesn’t sting. If a fly smuggles its way in, it is caught by sticky traps. Special liquid organic fertilizers are introduced into the irrigation system according to a “menu” supervised by computers. Water is also recycled whenever possible.

Menashe Levy, technical manager of the experimental station in Ashalim, is responsible for the sophisticated technology that controls the irrigation and tracks changes in the plants and land composition. The plants are watered several times a day with small amounts of water. The amount of accumulated salt is tracked along with the plant’s behavior. With computers tracking the amount of salt in the water and earth, Levy can determine the proper balance needed for specific plants to succeed. He can also measure humidity, the heat of the leaves, the rate liquids flow in the leaves, as well as the behavior of the tomato’s central stem, expanding or contracting according to pressure exerted by the liquid.

The data is extremely significant for this method of growing, and allows farmers to take the necessary action to prevent damage as a result of over-saltiness in the ground or lack of water. In Menashe Levy’s farm, cauliflower, celery and exotic flowers from Australia are grown alongside spices, peppers, and trees imported from Central America and Australia.

In another experiment, JNF scientists are working to establish vineyards in the Negev. The present vineyards were planted in the exact fields where ancient Nabatean agriculture existed (planting trees in small depressions in the earth, which helps capture moisture), but with the assistance of modern innovations such as dams and means to collect the small amounts of rainwater available. These dams and reservoirs were built by JNF throughout the Negev for agricultural and environmental purposes in addition to creating green islands for beauty and recreation.

Everyday, JNF is finding new ways to bring water - the source of life - to the Negev and as a result Israeli farmers are seeing their crops thrive and the economy grow.

 

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