Fruit grower Sefi Ben-Dror - Yaron Kaminsky - Nov. 21, 2010
Fruit grower Sefi Ben-Dror, Nov. 21, 2010 Photo by Yaron Kaminsky
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As of yesterday, Israeli farmers stopped sending their produce to the markets. They said they have never taken such an extreme step.

The farmers say they are expressing their disgust over the cut in the number of workers and the breaching of agreements. They say the cut in the number of foreign workers means the destruction of agriculture, and that if the reduction from 28,000 to 18,000 is implemented unilaterally, this will be unbearable.

Sefi Ben-Dor, 54, is a fourth-generation member of a veteran farming village in the Galilee, Yesud Hama'ala. He's also the manager of a family business that breeds fruit-tree saplings, grows fruit and develops unique gourmet fruit species including multicolored apricots, plum watermelons and pita peaches.

Why are you striking?

We're striking because of the reduction in ceilings for foreign workers from Thailand. It was done pretty much by surprise and without any clear criteria, and I can tell you that for me, it's affecting production plain and simple. These are people for whom I have already paid to come here, and I'm supposed to let them go before the designated time, after they have already trained in the job.

I have no substitute for these people. It's an improper and unfair handling of the situation. After all, the main problem is with infiltration by foreigners, whereas the agriculture sector is in complete control and well taken care of. What does it bother the state if there are 22,000 Thais working in agriculture or 26,000? It's a severe blow to production. They are key people in agriculture and significant for every agricultural endeavor.

Isn't it a strange sort of strike, because you're actually punishing yourselves?

Maybe we're being hurt. It really isn't such an ordinary strike; if we've reached this point, it's a sign that the pressure is now too great. There is a breach here of agreements that the government signed with the agricultural organizations. I wasn't among the decision makers; I'm a farmer who supports the strike and this process.

Did the farmers really heed the call and not market their agricultural produce today?

I imagine that there was agreement to do so. The test will be tomorrow [Monday] and the day after [Tuesday]; we only started the strike today. It's also not a very long strike; people won't starve here in Israel. It's just a few days, although the farmers are determined to continue their fight.

What did you do today?

I took care of my plants in the nursery, trimmed, prepared saplings, but did not market, did not move any agricultural produce out.

When will we feel the shortage in the markets and how will the strike affect our pockets?

I think that perhaps a slight shortage will be felt, but it's not a strike that will cause damage to consumers or farmers. It's a strike that's meant to show what we may come to. The truth is, even without the strike, if the government's policy continues, the produce shortage will happen all by itself. The ability to produce will be significantly affected.

You have to understand, the Thai workers aren't everything; there is also a serious problem with water. The summer started in March and isn't over yet, and we have to continue irrigating the orchards. This is a year in which watering is continuing for another four months, two months before the season and two months after the season, and this cost is unbearable. This is a natural disaster that the government is cynically exploiting - they're charging us a price 400 percent higher than the regular price of water because we deviated from the ceilings.

But why are we deviating from the ceiling? Because another four months of irrigation had to be added. Because of the deviation, we're paying NIS 4.5 per cubic liter of water instead of around NIS 1.2. Instead of the government helping us in natural-disaster cases such as this, it's charging us more money, and this is unbelievable. This is exploiting a crisis to make money off us. Irrigation is intended solely for keeping the grove alive; there will no longer be any profit there. If we stop irrigating next year, the grove will not yield fruit, and it's possible also that the grove will die.

You're protesting the limits on the number of foreign workers. Why don't you employ Israelis for a slightly higher wage?

Foreign workers are very expensive, more expensive than Israeli workers - we pay a head tax and an employer's tax; the state makes a mint off the foreign workers. Beyond that, most of the Israeli workers don't want to do the work the Thai workers do, some are also unable to do it; they don't have the skills and abilities of the Thais.

If they eliminate 4,000 Thai workers, the Israelis will not run to do those jobs. In my business, the Thais are only 10 percent of the labor force; they each complement the other. I employ Jews, Christians, Muslims, people from the villages, the kibbutzim, the Bedouin settlements - each one has his job. You have to understand, the Thai worker on the farm creates jobs for two to three Israeli workers.

Are you considering leaving the farming sector?

No way, let them, the clerks, leave their jobs. I'm fourth generation, I'll probably never leave. What, I should leave because some bureaucrat decided on a bad or misguided policy for a certain period? We're stronger and more grounded than they are.

How many farmers are left in Yesud Hama'ala?

In Yesud Hama'ala there are 160 members of the association, of them 30 who are active members. The rest left farming and rent their land to others. Not everyone can and wants to deal constantly with the forces of nature and the difficulties posed by humans.

Will your children follow in your ways?

They should do what's good for them. At the moment, they are studying or in the army. I hope they do what's good for them. They have the option of coming back to the farm.

You develop unique fruits; innovation. why don't all the farmers turn to innovation to be more profitable?

Agriculture is not just innovation; it's also production and Sisyphean work. You can't just create new species. Too bad they don't let agriculture develop. All in all, Israeli farmers supply very high-quality produce to the markets, supermarkets and stores - at very inexpensive prices in comparison to Western countries.

They should appreciate this; there are decision makers who don't accept the importance of produce that will not be dependent on imports. Even countries that are dependent on imports are now changing direction.

Are you concerned about the future of agriculture in Israel?

We're already in the midst of a not easy situation, and in the end, no matter how much they pressure us and the harder it is, there will be less production and more imports for prices that are four to five times higher.

We have good-quality produce and we export know-how. This will not continue if there is no agriculture. But I believe that in the end, agriculture will continue; it's just that whatever needs fixing should be fixed.