Salt of the Earth: The Secret Ingredient to the Perfect Israeli Produce

Aviva Lori
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Aviva Lori

Somehow, whenever you’re driving down to the Jordan Valley, the lovely Arik Einstein song “The Banana Picker” starts playing in your mind. As if the little man from the song is really working overtime in the orchards and scurrying like mad from tree to tree. And besides bananas, who makes sure the dates are of such prime quality, the mangoes fragrant and juicy, and the avocados such a brilliant green and so tasty? Not just the abundant sunshine and heat, nor is it just some random occurrence, as we might have thought.

On the shore of Lake Kinneret, shortly after the Tzemah junction, right near Beit Gavriel, in the basement of one of the buildings of the Jordan Valley College, in a room that’s not very big, sits a hidden treasure. A treasure that only those in on the secret know about. Most of it is more than 50 years old, and is arranged in thousands of cardboard boxes, as in an old shoe store, on unassuming office shelves. Anyone who passes this dull-looking assemblage might walk right on by without paying any attention. This is the Jordan Valley soil archive, and it contains 27,000 soil samples dried clumps of dirt in a range of colors and textures. Each sample comes from a different plot of land. Here in this archive, the only one of its kind in Israel, are samples from most of the farm fields of all the kibbutzim in the valley.

What is it good for? Just as city folk don’t make a move without a lawyer or therapist or personal trainer, in the Jordan Valley you don’t start planting without first paying a visit to the soil archive and the nearby laboratory. Soil samples are the name of the game, and the brains behind the agricultural successes of recent years. If the archive is the brain, the heart of the project is laboratory director Nurit Ben Hagai, a soil and water expert, and Amke (Avraham) Kinarti. She is second generation and he is third generation on the project.

“One thing you just can’t say today in agriculture is ‘Plant a tree and it will be fine,’” says Ben Hagai. “Because often it’s not fine. It just doesn’t work.”

The soil archive is the product of a unique idea of Jordan Valley pioneers. Or to be more precise, it’s the joint creation of three pioneers who came to the Jordan Valley in the early 20th century: Yosef Ben Hagai (Sokholovsky), Daniel Ziv and Shmuel Stoller. Nurit is Yosef’s daughter-in-law and, as noted, a second-generation soil collector. In addition to the soil archive, Ben Hagai runs the laboratory in Tzemah that provides services to farmers in the Upper Galilee, the Golan Heights, the Jordan Valley, Beit She’an and part of the Lower Galilee. The laboratory is owned by the regional factories of the Jordan Valley and is part of the Ministry of Agriculture’s field service. There used to be 23 such laboratories in the country. Now only five are left.

The story of Barak Kaplan, orchards coordinator on Kibbutz Ginosar, illustrates the importance of this service. “Once upon a time, farmers would say, ‘There’s land, there’s water, there’s air, you grow whatever you grow and you don’t make a big deal out of it.’ I used to think the same way, and I made mistakes. I planted avocado and didn’t consider the topographical problems of the plot; later on it turned out that there were drainage problems we didn’t know about. The result was a high mortality rate for the trees and a meager crop. If I had had this information available, I certainly would have made a different decision, but I was young and thought I knew it all and I didn’t consult with anyone. Now, the older I get, the less I know.”

The information was available, actually. The composition of the soil at Kibbutz Ginosar is in the soil archive at Tzemah, and if a clod or two is missing, new soil samples can always be ordered. Yes, it costs money, and Kaplan wasn’t sure it was worth the investment. Shmulik Midler, the orchard director at Kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov, also learned the hard way that there are no shortcuts: “In the last few years we’ve gotten into new areas where we didn’t grow anything before,” he says. “We went into a mountainous area where we weren’t sure about the properties of the soil. Every few meters the structure of the soil changes, and it was a big mystery as to how things would grow there, so to be safe, we grew wheat on this territory. It’s a crop that isn’t very risky. After we received advice from the laboratory at Tzemah, the best tool for a farmer at the highest level, this year we planted avocado on part of the area and it looks like it’s going to be a success. The thinking today is totally different. First you learn about the soil, and then you adapt the crops to it. It used to be that first we’d plant and afterward we’d try to solve the problems that came up. Everyone was planting bananas and only later they found out that, in certain places, the soil wasn’t right for bananas.”

A legend in his own time

The archive and the laboratory at Tzemah officially came into being in 1950, when “Experiment No. 1” was inscribed in a notebook there. Yosef Ben Hagai was born in Bialystok, Poland. His parents sent him to Israel when he was young, for fear he would catch the Communism bug. He grew up in Tel Aviv with his cousins, the Sokholovsky family, founders of the city who changed their name to Danin, and he attended the Gymnasia Herzliya, an institution that in those days was akin to Harvard, and whose graduates were considered the creme de la creme. When he graduated, he went to Kibbutz Degania Bet and began to work in agriculture.

Daniel Ziv, the son of Akiva Weiss, a founder of the Ahuzat Bayit association (which built Tel Aviv), was also born in Poland and studied at the Gymnasia Herzliya. He went to Degania Bet to realize the dream of agricultural settlement. Ziv was a poet and a farmer, an expert in bananas. Shmuel Stoller, born in Moscow, studied agriculture at university in Ukraine, came to this country as part of the Third Aliyah to Kvutzat Kinneret, and like his friends, devoted himself to agricultural research. He brought different varieties of bananas, dates and grapes to the Jordan Valley and adapted them to local conditions. For this work, he was awarded the Israel Prize in 1965.

The three pioneers established the Jordan Valley experiment committee, a sort of council of elders for soil, water and crop-related matters. They would dig, collect soil samples, number them, study them in the laboratory, dry them out, write reports and file them in one of the cardboard boxes. In the beginning, the lab they started was an outgrowth of the attempt to ensure a fair division of land.

“Whenever lands were reclaimed,” says Ben Hagai, “they had to be divided among the first five kibbutzim in the valley and the lands were not all of the same quality. The three had to study the problems of the land in order to divide it equally, and therefore they started the lab.” But it wasn’t just the soil that concerned them, but irrigation problems too.

“In the early days in the Jordan Valley, they mostly did dryland farming,” says Ben Hagai. “But gradually they came to see that if they didn’t bring water from the Kinneret there would be no development and no settlement. At first they flooded the crops with water; then they noticed that in certain places the water was salty. If the soil is heavy and there’s no drainage, the surplus water reaches the hard layer, is stopped there and comes back up and turns, among other things, to cooking salt. And so the pioneers learned that a field needs to be drained.”

They eliminated the surplus water with drainage canals they dug two meters deep in the fields. It saved the agriculture and significantly improved the crops. “And then Yosef said: ‘If we’re already digging deep and seeing the layers of the soil, it’s an opportunity take a sample from each layer and preserve them and use them to learn about the composition of the soil,’” says Ben Hagai. “And that’s how the Jordan Valley soil archive was born. Thanks to the drainage canals.”

Amke (Avraham) Kinarti was born 88 years ago in Kvutzat Kinneret. Today he is Ben Hagai’s right-hand man and her connection to the history of the Jordan Valley lands. Amke is a local legend, a combination farmer and warrior. He studied at the Kadoorie Agricultural School, was in the Palmach pre-state militia and took part in numerous daring operations. Amke fought to liberate the Galilee and Tiberias in the War of Independence; during a battle in Safed he was wounded in the eye by shrapnel.

“Everyone in the valley knows him,” says Ben Hagai. “There was a time when you could simply address a letter to ‘Amke, Jordan Valley,’ and it would get to him.”

After the war, Kinarti returned to Kvutzat Kinneret and joined Yosef in his work first as a driver and later as part of the field service and in mapping the land. “Yosef didn’t have a driver’s license and he needed to get from place to place,” says Kinarti. “Before I came along there was another fellow who worked with him. He was told to get a driver’s license. He studied and went to take the test and failed, and then failed again, and he got mad and left, and I took his place. I had a driver’s license already from when I was in the army.”

In 1958 Kinarti, the brother of Noah Kinarti, a water expert and an advisor to Yitzhak Rabin on settlement affairs, joined the Agriculture Ministry’s field service, and has continued to work to this day, even though he officially retired 20 years ago. Most of his work was managing Yosef’s project (Yosef died in 1972), and collecting and mapping soil samples in the valley. He continued working in the field, digging holes, collecting soil samples and putting them in boxes and documenting the findings in writing. His modest office in Tzemah bursts with oil files that only he is able to read. Only he can decipher his handwriting and remember the secret code words he scribbled to himself on the side. He has lived on Kvutzat Kinneret all these years and makes wine as a hobby. He and his nephew, Noah’s son, established a winery that produces 4,500 bottles a year.

“When I started working here,” says Ben Hagai, “he would bring grapes from the Galilee and in the basement of the laboratory he would stand barefoot in the tubs and pound the grapes with his feet and the whole place would fill with this wonderful aroma.”

Aliya from Argentina

When it comes to land, outward appearances can be deceiving. “When a farmer says he wants to plant an orchard in a certain plot,” says Ben Hagai, “everything may look great from above. The soil is brown and attractive. But what happens next, beneath the first layer? No one can say. It has to be analyzed.” For the analysis, Ben Hagai takes a hammer and descends into the hole.

In the past, the holes were dug manually. The shortest guy there would start the digging. When he disappeared in the hole, he’d be replaced by a guy who was a little taller. The last part of the digging was left to the tallest one. Today, it’s all done with a backhoe: “They dig a hole that’s 1.8 meters deep, 2 meters long and 60 centimeters wide, and I ask them to make an incline so I can go down into it and I start using the hammer to uncover the layers and outline the section. There are four layers in each hole. I take soil samples. Some go to the soil archive and some to the laboratory for chemical testing to determine the composition of the soil, and as I result I’m able to tell the farmer who comes to me for a consultation which crops would be best for him to grow in that soil. Sometimes one plot of land can contain different types of soil and so I advise the farmer to divide the plot and to grow more than one kind of crop there. Before the farmer puts down the first sprinkler, he should know what’s hiding under the top layer of soil.”

Ben Hagai was born in Buenos Aires, a second-generation Argentine native on her father’s side. She grew up in a secular Zionist home. In 1972, at age 19, having graduated from high school and spent a year at a teachers’ seminary, she came to Israel to complete her studies and ended up staying. “I went to a teachers’ seminary for foreign students in Jerusalem,” she says. “It was a good way to get to know the country and get acclimated. When I finished my studies I went to the director of the school and told him I wasn’t planning to return home. My whole family was still in Argentina, but my parents respected my decision. It was the way I was brought up, after all. I enrolled in the Faculty of Agriculture for water and soil studies. I thought that suited me best personally and in terms of my Zionism.”

Ben Hagai ended up putting her Zionism into practice at Degania Bet. At the Faculty of Agriculture she met Shai Ben Hagai, Yosef’s son, who was studying animal science, and they got married. “He brought me to the Jordan Valley. I kept on studying for a master’s degree, and on days when I wasn’t studying I worked in the vegetable garden with Shai’s brother Shmulik, who was in charge of that at Degania Bet. I thought that after I finished my degree I would work in this area on the kibbutz. But one day in the winter of 1977, a man I’d never seen before came to the garden. It was raining and all wet and muddy, and I was working in the watermelon patch, and the man said: ‘They say in the valley that Yosef’s wife studied soil and water.’ It was Amke. He took me away from the vegetables and put me into the lab, and I’ve been here ever since. I’ve been running the lab since 1978. It was a great love at first sight.”

Nurit and Shai Ben Hagai now live in Ma’ale Gamla. They have three children and large coops for breeding poultry. On Fridays, when the lab is closed, she goes biking, the only woman in a group of cyclists from the Golan Heights who ride mountain bikes. For the past few years, Ben Hagai, with Kinarti’s help, has been working on computerizing the system.

“Amke invested five or six years in this project. He copied what was in his files, organized the data and gave numbers to the plots,” she says. He had to go file by file, paper by paper so someone could understand his inscrutable writing. The results are impressive. At the press of a button you can now see the plots that are on the map appearing in different colors, and farmers can now get up-to-date information about the composition of the soil where they plan to plant a certain crop.

“You search for the plot on the map,” says Ben Hagai. “If it’s been surveyed then all the information is in the computer. If the information is not sufficient, we do another survey and add new data and approve the plot for planting.”

If the surveying began back in the 1950s or even earlier, it seems that soon you may not have any more work, since most of the area has already been mapped.

“The area of Kibbutz Degania Aleph, for example, was surveyed in 1988,” says Ben Hagai. “Since then they’ve changed the crops, since in modern agriculture you change crops every few years. It’s a matter of fashion, money and the needs of the soil. One kibbutz wanted to grow mangoes. We’re in a subtropical region and mangoes are very well suited to this region. We had samples from the 1960s. I checked and found that they hadn’t done the most important test for mangoes, because the mango is particularly sensitive to chalk, and at the time they didn’t test for chalk in the soil. What often happens on the kibbutzim is that when a new director of agriculture takes over, or an outsider is hired for the job, he throws out all the old files, and all of our tests along with them.”

The cost of putting together a new file with all the data, including excavations and lab tests, can reach tens of thousands of shekels, and the farmer isn’t always keen to spend such a sum. As it is, he usually cannot expect such a great profit. “Nowadays the profits in agriculture are very borderline,” says Rami Gur of Moshav Givat Yoav. “So the preliminary testing is very critical, because if you miss something, you end up on the wrong side of your profit curve.”

Gur is a versatile farmer. He has turkey coops, 50 dunams on which he grows kumquats and 30 dunams of pitaya, a new exotic fruit originating in Central America but is more well-known in the Far East. “It’s a cactus with a beautiful flower that blooms at night and which has to be pollinated manually. And it has a wonderful fruit,” says Gur. “It was developed by Prof. Yosi Mizrahi at Ben-Gurion University. I was very excited by this crop and in 2000 I took saplings from Prof. Mizrahi of all different varieties. I was dependent upon Nurit’s help to start growing a new crop I didn’t know how to fertilize, or which soil to plant it in, or how to care for it. I sent her soil samples. This cactus is not very particular in terms of which soil it grows in. The bigger issue is temperature. Around here there are big fluctuations between day and night. I had to learn to cope with a lot of issues in order not to waste too much water and give it the right amount of fertilizer.

“With citrus fruit, you send Nurit a sample of leaves from the tree and she sends back the results of the tests she did in the lab, and that tells you how much potassium, phosphates and other minerals to add. With citrus fruits the testing has to be very precise, because if you miss something it means you’re going to lose a lot of money. The cactus has no leaves, so we took samples from it and Nurit tested different variations and we received a report on how to fertilize its soil.”

Gur wasn’t always this disciplined. Before the pitaya, he grew bananas on the same land. Ben Hagai wasn’t very enthusiastic about putting a banana crop there and suggested he try something else, but Gur insisted. “This was the land I had, so I insisted on growing bananas on it. The norm with bananas is that after seven years the land exhausts its potential and then you switch to another crop. And I hadn’t had my seven years yet with that plot. But I was barely able to keep it going for five years, and then I had to drop it. There were a lot of problems there. It’s a river channel where the land is very sandy and full of stones, and bananas don’t like that. They like soil that is more ventilated. I made a separate hole with heavy soil for each banana tree, and I thought that would solve the problem, but the bananas still wouldn’t cooperate and it just didn’t work. The yield wasn’t good enough. In the end, I gave up on bananas and switched to pitaya. In retrospect, Nurit was right.”

Barak Kaplan from Ginosar planted 50 dunams of mangoes in two plots this year. “Before I started I went to Nurit and at the press of a button we found the two plots on her computer. For the farmer it’s a huge advantage that really saves us and saves thousands of shekels. On one of the plots there were no tests from the past and there had been problems there. Now we’ve dug holes there and on the basis of the results we altered our plans for planting. I can’t tell you yet if it’s a success or not. The winter isn’t over yet.”

The soil archive in the Tzemah cellar reminds Ben Hagai of the archive of old books that no one reads anymore in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s book “The Shadow of the Wind.” With one difference: In the book, the boy, Daniel, isn’t allowed to tell anyone about the secret book archive that his father shows him. Ben Hagai, however, is always happy to tell anyone willing to listen about the treasure she inherited from the father-in-law she never got to meet.

Nurit Ben Hagai and Amke Kinarti in the field. Love at first sight.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky
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Boxes of soil samples, soil and water mixtures and solutions ready for chemical testing.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky
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Boxes of soil samples, soil and water mixtures and solutions ready for chemical testing. Credit: Yaron Kaminsky
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Ben Hagai and Kinarti with some soil samples.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

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