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As many as 25 percent of farmers in the south are in dire financial straits and some are on the verge of bankruptcy, according to the general manager of Moshavei Hanegev Development Company, Ilan Peretz.

"If the government does not wake up in time the situation will worsen and will make the future of agriculture in the Negev questionable," says Peretz. The company he heads is the country's largest agricultural firm, with 150,000 dunams (about 37,00 acres) under cultivation in 35 moshavim in the northern and western Negev.

Factors contributing to the farmers' troubles include the effects of the agricultural sabbatical year, the shmita, which ended this fall; killing frosts; the drought that is now in its fourth year; the global economic crisis; and above all, the shekel's strong exchange rate against other currencies.

Peretz claims that farming in the south is dying out. "Farming in the south is in a serious economic crisis. The farmers have no pension funds, and they have no way of covering their losses. Many farmers are facing bankruptcy. Many of them realized that it is impossible to have a family and earn a living over a long period of time. Farming is no longer an employment option. In the worst-case scenario farmers will cease working the land in the Negev."

Many farmers are turning to tourism, opening bed-and-breakfasts or offering tours of the region. Peretz considers this a dangerous development.

"A piece of land that is not used for construction or agriculture may become an easy target for nationalist [Arabs], especially in the south," Peretz explains, suggesting that without farming, "borders and sovereignty will become unclear."

"It is easy to see what the result of a decision to raise the cost of water for agriculture will be: the farmers will have to reduce production, many crops will not be grown, and the abandoned land will become a target for various forms of banditry," Peretz continued.

Edward Kobortzky lives in Avshalom, in the Eshkol region, area, and farms 18 dunams. This year he grew peppers. During Operation Cast Lead he was left without workers, a situation that, combined with the economic crisis, has brought him close to bankruptcy.

"I owe NIS 900,000 to all sorts of suppliers, and our financial situation at home is terrible. The bankers have blocked my account, and today my family and I live on my wife's NIS 6,000 monthly salary," Kobortzky says. He and his wife have two daughters.

"We buy a lot less food and use much less electricity," Kobortzky says. "I feel that without help I will go down, I can barely make a living. Even though we had many promises of compensation we have still not received a single shekel. Most of the farmers in the south are not doing well, and the country needs to start helping us, otherwise we will all crash," he adds.

Ahi Sidbon, who cultivates 150 dunams of peppers at Moshav Dekel, says he will not be able to survive another year like this one. "The situation of the farmers in the south is terrible. People who invested this year did not survive and those who did not invest this year, barely made it. Most of the farmers will not see any profit this year," Sidbon said.

The ministries of agriculture and finance are working on a program to provide fast loans to farmers. Officials encourage farmers to turn to existing funds that provide state-guaranteed loans.