The Unusual Flowering of the Desert

To compete with third-world rivals, Israeli farmers have had to innovate. Meet the tiger-striped tomato.

Each year, thousands of acres of fruit trees are uprooted in Israel, mainly because their growers have exceeded their water quotas. But the carnage is confined mainly to the north and center. Israeli agriculture isn't vanishing, but it is migrating south.

Thousands of greenhouses, made of plastic and netting to protect the plants against pests and the arid desert conditions, have popped up in the Negev and Arava. In the middle of the sandy, rocky wastes, these spots are lush with flowers, regular and exotic fruit and vegetables, leafy spices and more.

Why in the Negev, of all places? Because that is where Israel's relative advantages for farmers actually lie.

Land is abundant. There's no competition over it, unlike in the crowded center and lush north. The sun shines year-round, which crop plants like. On the flip side, there's hardly any rain, barely two inches a year.

The extreme aridity in the Arava valley and throughout the Negev plateau, and the remoteness from other agricultural areas, have rendered the land and air clean of pests, diseases that target crops, and of pollution as well.

Also, the farmers naturally focus on crops that thrive on relatively saline water, provided through irrigation.

So while the climatic conditions of Israel's southern deserts may seem sub-optimal for agriculture, at a superficial glance, we see they do confer unique advantages. Another is that because of the protracted growing season, exports can be maintained throughout most of the year.

The heat and intense sunshine allow vegetables to be planted at the end of summer, and the produce to be marketed abroad "not in season" - a time when profit margins are widest.

Figures from the Middle Arava local council show how deeply this desert agriculture is striking root. The local council's beat spreads over 1.5 million dunams, which is about 370,000 acres, inside which are five agricultural moshavim. From 2006 to 2008, the area occupied by pepper cultivation grew from 185 acres to 346 acres. The area on which leafy spices are grown, such as parsley, dill and coriander, expanded from 6 acres to 21.

Export of vegetables from the nine agricultural moshavim in the northern and middle Arava areas grew to 60% of total vegetable exports from Israel in 2007, according to the local council's calculations.

The biggest export crop was colorful peppers (NIS 945 million in 2007), dates (NIS 123 million) and spices (NIS 115 million).

The farmers of the Negev may not be competing over land, but on foreign soil they're in fierce competition with the growers of Kenya and Ethiopia, for example. In recent years these African nations have launched gigantic flower farms and are posing stiff competition for Israelis in the flower markets of Europe.

Ironically, the African flower farms were created with Israeli help and technology. Be that as it may, the Kenyan and Ethiopian farmers pay pickers $1.50 a day, while in Israel, a foreign worker gets between $37 to $40 a day - and that doesn't include the cost of housing, insurance, employers' tax and other fees that the employer has to cover.

Another advantage of the African farms compared with the ones in Israel's desert is water in abundance, and it's practically free there, too.

To remain competitive with the attractive prices that various third-world farmers can offer on vegetables, fruit and flora, Israel has to provide another edge - and it has one. Innovation. Constant innovation. Kicky new ideas to tempt shoppers from Europe to America to Japan. Chocolaty tomatoes? Check. How about tiger-striped ones? Check.

"We have to stay one step ahead of everyone else," says Michael Ofran, a tomato grower in Moshav Ein Yahav. At their greenhouse, Ofran and his partner Yair Cohen are developing a rainbow coalition - of tomatoes. Red is so pass? Their products sport a range of shapes, sizes, flavors, colors and even patterns. Yellow tomatoes, purple, deep brown, bright orange, pink (and yes, red), small and round, elongated, sweet, tart, and even tomatoes that have it all - tart and sweet, or sweet and spicy. The important thing is to be new.

All that glitters isn't gold, they say, or beauty is only skin-deep - Ofran's tomatoes demonstrate the profound truth of these tired cliches. The tastiest tomato isn't the prettiest one. It's a simple-looking red fruit that combines a number of flavor traits. It may not look exotic, but delights the palate with a combination of flavors that's hard to describe.

This humdrum-looking red tomato is the outcome of extensive hybridization, combined with irrigation by semi-saline water, hence its salty, spicy character.

How saline, by the way? We're talking water with 500 milligrams of chloride per liter, which had once been suitable only for desert date palms. Today this water is used in the Negev to grow tomatoes, peppers, olives, eggplants, leafy spices and citrus.

Constant innovation requires heavy investment in research and development. This week, today and on Thursday, the agricultural research center at Moshav Hazeva, by the border with Jordan, will be holding the biggest agricultural expo in Israel (entrance for free), at which farmers can showcase the new products developed in the desert in recent years. The expo is run by Alon Gadiel, who also manages the Desert Agriculture research at Hazeva.

Many experiments end in failure. The gaudiest, most eye-catching fruit may be devoid of flavor, or the hybrid may lack the best qualities of its parents.

But even a negative result is a guideline, a message to the farmer to try something else.

The incredible water-saving fungus

A major part of the expo isn't about fruit and vegetables at all, it's about ways to economize on water.

The farmers of the Negev use water extracted from a depth of about a kilometer. Drilling to that depth and extracting the water is expensive. Moreover, this underground water requires extensive processing before use, to extract the iron particles that would clog the pores of the drip-irrigation pipelines, to extract the hydrogen sulfide that would kill the plants and so on. Also, thermal water tends to be too salty and requires dilution.

The studies aren't all about clever ways to engineer water explorations in the bowels of the planet. There's one, carried out at Tahanat Yair at Hazeva, which found that if the roots of pepper plants are infected with a certain fungus, mycorhiza, the plants require a third less water. The researchers also found that if pepper crops infected with mycorhiza are given the normal amount of water, the crop is far more bounteous compared with uninfected plants given the same amount of water.

The reason is that mycorhiza improves water uptake by the pepper plant's roots.

The pepper plants are infected with the handy fungus through fertilizer. Farmers found that mycorhiza increases revenues from pepper exports by $315,000 per growing unit (11 acres) a year, at an added expense of just $6,750. That translates into added profit of $308,000 per 11 acres of land.

Peppers now constitute 80% of the agricultural exports of the Arava moshavim.

NaanDan Jain Irrigation, an irrigation technology innovator owned by Kibbutz Naan and the Indian conglomerate Jain, is working on innovative drip technology that can not only reduce water use by 20%, but can also address water quality issues too. The waste water that many Israeli farmers use is treated, but it's still full of organic chemicals that clog the pipelines. NaanDan Jain's latest development is addressing that problem.

The tomato as snack food

Marketing is as important to the agricultural sector as it is to cars and shoes. People like kicky new things not only on their feet and living rooms, but on their plate, too. Consumers may buy a new sweater not because they need it, but because they want a new look, and the same holds true for the humble carrot. And tomato and pepper.

Zeraim Gedera calls itself "one of the world's leading companies in vegetable varietal development." At the Hazeva expo, it will be showing its latest shapes of cherry tomato, one looking like a strawberry, and latest forms and flavors of tomatoes. It's promising a sweet fruit with unique qualities suitable not only for salads but as a snack as well.

Another deep-desert product that wouldn't leap to the mind is tropical fish. Snort not, dear reader: They aren't bred in fish ponds like in the north but in plastic containers inside sterile, closed environments. The water they grow in is treated and recycled several times, and finally serves to water the flowers and fruit and vegetables in the greenhouses. The demand for pretty, cultivated fish is intense, given the ban on "harvesting" wild ones, explains Dr. M. Pimenta Leibowitz. The species she's cultivating include the clownfish (better known these days as "Nemo"), euclids and guppies. Fish breeding in the heart of the desert requires heavy investment and isn't for everyone. But it is yet another unexpected aspect in the materialization of David Ben-Gurion's dream to make the Negev flourish and bloom, even if only under plastic sheeting.