Pioneers of an Organic Lifestyle

Goel Pinto
Goel Pinto
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Goel Pinto
Goel Pinto

The onions are tiny and the kohlrabi looks withered in the country's largest organic vegetable and fruit storehouse, at Kibbutz Harduf. The tomato that Erez Serlin hands me is also not very appealing to the eye but its taste is reminiscent of bygone days. It smells of soil and freshness and is just right when it comes to both sweetness and ripeness. Serlin, who is responsible for the kibbutz's organic vegetable market, does not try to hide his attitude toward the big city and asks: "Do you have this kind of tomato in Tel Aviv?"

The cherries, the strawberries and the small bananas are also incredibly tasty. "You won't be able to eat non- organic food after this," says Yishai Shapira, the director general of Harduf Organic Food Products Ltd., as he offers me hummus and "green" tehina that are not yet being marketed to the public. Both have a taste that differs from the one we are accustomed to - the chickpeas used to make the hummus were cooked in their skin, and one can genuinely taste the fresh parsley used in the tehina.

Kibbutz Harduf, which was founded in the Lower Galilee in 1982, pioneered organic food in Israel. A walk through the alleys of the kibbutz will reveal artichoke bushes and -beds of chard growing right in the midst of the settlement. One has to jump over rows of lettuce to reach the loquat trees, whose fruit can be picked right off without fear of pesticides. "In the summer, when you begin eating the fruit of the season, everyone starts to have diarrhea or has to throw up," says Serlin. "The doctors tell you that the reason for this is a virus, but the truth is that it is the body's way of getting rid of all the poisons people eat when they ingest these fruits."

This is the future

It all began 25 years ago, when 12 men and women decided to go and farm the lands near Zippori. They established their kibbutz on the premises of the anthroposophical theories of Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner (1861-1925). Steiner, who was influenced by the writings of Goethe, developed a school of thought that combined natural sciences with a spiritual component, based on a belief in Karma: What we sow in one incarnation we will reap in another incarnation. On the basis of this belief, he drew up a pedagogical theory, which today forms the basis of the most widespread private educational system in the world. There are seven anthroposophic schools in Israel, including those at Harduf, Hakfar Hayarok, Ramat Gan and Be'er Sheva, as well as some 50 kindergartens.

Harduf, which in Israel has become synonymous with health food products, has a long waiting list of candidates to join it - five years to join the kibbutz and three years to join its school. "But in the beginning," says Guy Lapidot, the kibbutz secretary, "we had to do somersaults in order for someone to even look at our bags of wheat kernels. The fact that the Harduf enterprise is today owned by Tnuva [partially since 2002, and under full ownership for the past three years] is the essence of our journey: from being an anonymous pioneering enterprise to becoming the largest food corporation in the country."

Shapira arrived at the kibbutz 15 years ago. A decade earlier, at the beginning of the 1980s, he began growing organic agricultural crops at his previous kibbutz, Ein Dor. In his opinion, Tnuva bought Harduf because the directors of the corporation "genuinely believe in organic food." There is another explanation: Like other leading global concerns - such as Kellogg's or Coca-Cola - Tnuva also understood that it was worthwhile to invest in organic food to improve its image.

But ultimately, the move was motivated by economic concerns. Organic food is the food of the future, says Shapira, not a temporary alternative or a momentary thrill, such as quinoa. "In no country in the world has there been a drop in sales of organic food," he says.

Eating poison

In 1982, members of the Kibbutz Movement did not quite understand what those young people with their organic ideology wanted from them. Perhaps that was the reason why they were allocated fields from the Zevulun Valley kibbutzim, state lands that were difficult to cultivate. "For five years, the only thing we did was clear away stones and rocks from the farmlands," recalls Lapidot. "People from the Kibbutz Movement considered organic agriculture to be something strange. They did not see it as practical, especially from an economic point of view, because there was no market for it. They did not understand that our point of reference was not economic but rather principled."

Shapira sits in his little office and recalls those days: "In the beginning, we would pack the wheat kernels by hand and we would try to sell them. Later we bought a small mill and sold flour. In the dining room, we had a stove and a mixer, and we started to produce bread for our own use, and afterward for the shops as well. In the next stage, we began producing dairy products from the milk of the kibbutz sheep. In this manner we developed a modest system of marketing and distribution." Today Harduf produces some 300 products, including dairy goods, vegetables and dry goods such as pasta and legumes. To date, all of these are more expensive than the parallel nonorganic products.

According to the data available, some 10,000 Israeli families, many of them urban dwellers, regularly eat organic food. Members of the kibbutz identify two points in time as crucial for bringing about change. The first occurred at the beginning of the 1990s, when there were initial signs of peace between Israel and its neighbors, something to which "the organic market reacted positively, because there is some kind of connection between organic food, freedom and peace." The second took place in 2000, when the U.S. passed a law standardizing organic agriculture, which "by its very acceptance and application, caused a global push forward in the field."

"In the end, everyone will understand it was a mistake to push farmers into supplying cheap produce," says Shapira. "Today people are beginning to understand that this constraint, which the public forced on the food producers, led them to use the worst materials available - poison in fact - in order to provide cheap produce."

In the opinion of Serlin, "every consumer of vegetables should ask himself what he would like: Will I pay for a kilo of cucumbers that were grown in chemical soil, sprayed once every four days with pesticides, which polluted the environment and also led to employing laborers on the black market without a salary slip, and which were sent to the market without the certificates of the marketing board?"

Support for the environment and the community are among Kibbutz Harduf's basic principles. That is the reason kibbutz members prefer to buy organic lettuce for three shekels from mentally handicapped growers, who work on the kibbutz, rather than paying 90 agorot in another place. "To buy lettuce from a farmer for 90 agorot is to shoot him in the head," Serlin says without hesitation.

This year, after 14 years of dreaming and planning, Kibbutz Harduf cut off its local sewage from the national system. This will allow it to cleanse the waste matter so it can be used for watering stalks and trees. Eventually, its members hope to set up an ecological park on recycled water.

Healing the soul

All of this has turned Kibbutz Harduf into what it is. All the cycles exist there to serve one moral purpose - healing. The healing of the earth, which no longer has to suffer pollution from sprays; the healing of man, who no longer ingests poisoned food; and the healing of the soul. There are several health centers in Harduf: Beit Elisha, which rehabilitates adults with special needs; the Tuvia community, where children and youth who have been removed from their homes find a new foster family; and the Hiram, where youths who suffer from emotional problems get help. Another support program run on the kibbutz is "Sha'ar l'Adam" (Gateway to Man), conducted by two people - Yaakov Arnan, a member of the kibbutz, and Amin Sawaed, the son of the mukhtar, village head, of Suwad Humira, a Bedouin village located west of the kibbutz. About five years ago, the two men began the project, which is based on forging a connection between the region's Jewish and Arab residents. "In my view, it is important to identify what is common to all of us," Sawaed says. "It is easy to sit on the fence and complain about the farmlands and the neighbors," he says. "I can look at the members of Kibbutz Harduf and talk about what they have, compared to what I, as an Arab resident, don't have, about the fact that they have been on the land for 25 years already while my village was recognized only a decade ago and still does not have a proper infrastructure. But I'm not a professional complainer. I prefer to ask the question: What can I do to change my situation?"

His way to do that is to cooperate with the people on the kibbutz to create various activities: meetings between youth from different schools in the area, who are all studying theater, and a Jewish-Arab festival called "Words that heal," which will start today and continue until Saturday.

Arnan says: "On the kibbutz, we set up a society based on spiritual individualism, which cuts across religions and can co-exist with any other religion. This is the exact opposite of fundamentalism. In my opinion, the next aim of Zionism must be to make a connection with the Arabs and to create a joint culture. It is impossible to be connected with the land and to take care of it and care about it if you have stolen it from someone else."



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