Farming in the West Bank: Organic Paradise, Thorny Reality

In the West Bank, as in the Jordan Valley and elsewhere in Israel proper, natural and ecologically oriented farming methods are taking root. The farmers would prefer not to mix food production with politics, but that is impossible.

Dafna Arad
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Dafna Arad

At first glance, the Givot Olam farm looks like an organic utopia. The mountain air is clear, the egg-laying hens are leading a nice life, the laborers are working hard and piano music wafts from a radio in the livestock pen. The place is aesthetic, pleasant, free. The farm’s 50 workers − many of them young people with behavioral problems who are undergoing rehabilitation and education through hard work − produce high-quality goat’s milk products, and organic grains and eggs. All in synergy with the living world.

Organic agriculture has become the pride of the regional councils in the West Bank, which are now trying to turn the discourse surrounding that livelihood away from issues of principle. Still, many of the country’s organic farmers live beyond the Green Line, and their story embodies the essence of the ongoing dispute surrounding Israel’s land, and life and work on it. The settlers of the northern West Bank, Binyamin and Gush Etzion areas have a different background than the growers of dates, peppers and cucumbers in the greenhouses and orchards of the Jordan Valley − but all of them would prefer not to mix food with politics. That, of course, is impossible. The ideology of the organic farmers in the territories manages to connect redemption of the land to living in the spirit of the Bible, and harnesses the environmental awareness of their customers to the need to make a steady income, but all the ecological harmony doesn’t translate into good relations with their neighbors.

Givot Olam.Credit: Motti Milrod

Givot Olam was founded 15 years ago by Avri Ran, a lieutenant colonel born in 1955. He grew up secular on Kibbutz Nahsholim, and became observant together with his wife Sharona. He set up outposts in the vicinity of Itamar in Samaria and raised his 10 children − and his livestock − there. Ran is today an icon of the radical right, a symbol for the so-called hilltop youth, while being persona non grata among the Israeli left and the neighboring Palestinians.

Over the past decade, Ran has been convicted of assault more than once and has had to pay compensation for injuring a handicapped Palestinian man near the Hawara checkpoint. In another trial, on charges of aggravated assault on two Palestinian farmers from the village of Yanun, the judge ruled that although Ran had violated his house arrest, his explanations were credible and he was acquitted.

The chicken coop in Givot Olam. Credit: Motti Milrod

Asked why he has turned to organic agriculture, Ran says: “We’re farmers. Why shouldn’t there be coherence between what we produce and do and
Creation? Ecology is something that has to interest everyone,” he says, pointing out that in Hebrew the word for person: adam and the word for soil, adama, are from the same root.

Do you want Givot Olam to become a brand like Yotvata ‏(a successful kibbutz dairy in the south‏)?

Ayala Smith. Credit: Motti Milrod

Ran: “What a question. Why not? We want to be excellent. I could leave
Yotvata far behind. But certain things are stopping me. First and foremost, I’m a person who believes that his place is everywhere in the State of Israel. The trick isn’t to be a person with values, but to preserve your values when they clash with one another. The leading value for me is to do what is necessary. If the Jewish people were extremely ill and a revolution were needed in the consumption of health products, the leading value for me could be to put healthy food in the people’s mouths. But I think that today it’s more important to live here.”

According to him, “In any other place they would love me, help me and nurture me, and here I need to do it all by myself. Do you know of a single animal pen or hen house that has been built entirely with private money? In which there isn’t a single shekel of public funds? I’m a third-generation kibbutznik, my leftist grandfather was a founder of Kibbutz Sha’ar Ha’amakim, and this can’t be said of the kibbutz farms. We hooked up the water ourselves, and the electricity hookups here are at our expense. Not from the settlers, not from the Yesha Council [of settlements], certainly not from [Yitzhak] Rabin, and definitely not from [former leader of Meretz] Shulamit Aloni. I took out loans, I paid debts and I did business. Life isn’t easy.

“The Givot Olam brand could have become a leading brand that all Israel was proud of. I could also be getting a return of 15 or 20 percent more on our products − but they are from Givot Olam. Unfortunately, I’ve given up selling my goods directly, developing the brand and having a big reputation, because there are constraints.”
Ran speaks softly, gazes deeply into his interlocutor’s eyes, cooperates and even disregards telephone calls and visitors who have “made the pilgrimage” to shake his hand.

“Wherever there’s a health store, our products are there,” he boasts, popping a few cubes of organic goat cheese into his mouth. “The Givot Olam brand is seeping in, it’s a respected brand in the professional clique, and among organic farmers and buyers for health food stores. Whether we’re talking about products, business, integrity or ethics, it’s considered the most professional organic farm in the country, in my opinion.

“Yesterday someone tried to arrange a meeting with me to set up an organic farm in Europe. At the organic level, we definitely have no competitors. We sell millions of eggs annually to the organic market − they’re the best organic eggs out there. They reach thousands of households in Israel.”

Yaakov Cohen, secretary of Israel’s poultry farmers association, also raises organic hens for egg production. “In Israel there are about 25 certified organic poultry farmers who work under a quota,” he says. “In total, we’re talking about 2.5 percent of all the eggs produced in this country. Avri isn’t the largest, but he is definitely considered a large producer.”

Ran tries to ensure that his products are available on as many shelves as possible. “One day we decided to focus on introducing these products in Tel Aviv,” he says, gesturing toward bottles of yogurt with the Givot Olam label.

“We took a sweetheart of a marketer, a real Tel Aviv type. In the first week all the shops snatched up our products. The following week, as soon as the store-owners saw the car coming, they came out blocked us so we couldn’t even get to the stores ... Today, 99 percent of Givot Olam products aren’t sold under the Givot Olam name. That way leftists, the most left wing of the leftists, end up buying Givot Olam products.”

At the farm’s packaging plant, teenage boys are listening to deafening music as they delicately place eggs into cardboard cartons. The brand names have what appear to be perfectly “clean” and “green” public images, and are sold in health food stores.

This issue has been widely discussed in the past: dairy products, vegetables in bulk and eggs are not clearly labeled at most health food stores. Consumers have a hard time keeping track of where their food is grown and by whom, and for organic food consumers, with their developed consciences, this is a concern.

“There are also consumers in Tel Aviv who look for [and want to buy] our products,” says Ran. “People mix food and politics, so we deal with that.”

Ran gets a bit agitated when asked why he doesn’t raise animals for organic meat. “We raise a large flock of goats and lambs, totally organically, but we don’t slaughter here, thank God. Mentally this is something hard for me to connect with. To get a baby goat, take care of it, love it and know that you’re doing all this so some day he’ll be slaughtered and fried in someone’s pan ....”

You’re sensitive.

“I’m not sensitive at all.”

You sympathize with the baby goat.

“Is that sensitivity? I also sympathize with the fruit on the tree. It’s not even a matter of organic agriculture. Go visit my kibbutznik grandfather, let him smell a clod of soil and he’ll come back to life. At the kibbutz, people talk to the soil. They even talk to the cotton, which is just a thorn − never mind the oranges.”

He declares: “Modesty is killing us .... It’s a fact: The Jewish people are leading the world of agriculture, also organic agriculture.”

Jewel in the crown

The organic trend has taken hold at other settlements in the northern West Bank. At the Tura boutique winery at the Rechelim outpost, east of Ariel, Vered and Erez Ben-Saadon are cultivating a vineyard of 360 dunams ‏(1 dunam = .25 acre‏) and an olive orchard of 100 dunams. They’re using conventional methods to produce wine and olive oil, but the jewel in the crown at their farm is their six-dunam orchard of organic apple trees. There are three varieties cultivated at an altitude of 850 meters. The apples are sold at selected health food stores around Israel, and recently the Ben-Saadons have started producing mildly sweet organic cider.

“Our uniqueness derives from the climate on Har Bracha,” says Erez Ben-Saadon.
He sits down at the head of the long table at the winery’s visitors center, a wooden structure where a bar is being installed. It could wind up the hottest night spot in Rechelim, “a religious community in the hills of Samaria, between the Tapuah Junction and Eli, on the new road to Ariel ... home to 50 families and two single people” − according to its Hebrew-language website.

On the table is a six-pack of cider, with modern graphics on the label. My visit takes place during Passover, and since the cider is carbonated at a brewery that isn’t kosher for Passover, Ben-Saadon can’t show it off. So he pours us unsweetened and noncarbonated cider straight from the keg. It’s tart.

Why did you choose to grow your apples organically?

Erez Ben-Saadon: “The Jewish religion asks man and the farmer to preserve nature, to preserve his environment. I see this as a supreme value. We prefer to work with nature, to work with the food chain, with nature’s natural enemies and not to interfere with it. We protect the apples with netting. That’s the only way to keep flies away.

“The organic way is to make do with little, to understand that it’s necessary to sacrifice something and save for something greater − like this land. The more we give in, the more we will suffer ... I’m educating my children not to buy candy right away with every shekel they have. Save up for something bigger, like a bicycle.”
As to cooperation with his Palestinian neighbors in the realm organic farming, there is nothing to be said, apparently.

“In my naivete,” Ben-Saadon says, “I thought the Arabs farm organically, just like 3,000 years ago. But at an organic agriculture conference a lecturer said the Arabs in our area use substances that are no longer up to standard; the Palestinian Authority imports them from all kinds of factories abroad. We don’t have any connection with our neighbors. Their only connection to our crops is uprooting them, cutting them down, setting them on fire ... or laying explosives, as has happened here three times in our vineyard,” he explains.

That sounds like a bit more than a farmer should have to deal with.
“We feel just like the farmers there used to be in the north on the Lebanese border or in the Hula Valley, or the Kinneret fishermen. We’re establishing the country’s borders, what we believe is the only thing that will allow this country to exist.”

‘Better than Africa’

According to Dr. Ornit Raz, head of Israel’s organic farmers association , the West Bank provides only a marginal amount of the organic produce produced in Israel. “Quite a number of people call themselves ‘organic,’ but they aren’t,” she adds.
Dr. Isaac Skalski, the executive director of Agrior, which inspects and authorizes the organic farms mentioned in this article, says his company certifies the produce, not the farmers. It doesn’t examine the quality of a farmer’s relations with his neighbors when it judges who’s organic and who isn’t.

According to Skalski, “In recent years there has been a slow and steady increase in organic agriculture all over the country. I assume we have an organic farmer or two in this country who sees it as an economic matter par excellence, but in reality, the ideological element plays an important role there, with an emphasis on preserving the environment, preserving the land and preserving people’s health.”
On your website, “environmental harmony” is mentioned as a principle. What does that mean?

Skalski: “Environmental harmony is the understanding that I am not alone − I am living in an environment and an ecological system and I respect it. I receive and I give back. The farmer tends his crops with consideration for the environment and doesn’t harm the soil, the neighbor’s fields or the organisms in the environment. He keeps away environmental hazards, tin and plastic, and uses substances that are beneficial to the soil.”

Raz notes that while in the northern West Bank the number of organic farmers has remained steady over the last five years, in the Jordan Valley organic date plantations are multiplying. This is apparently due in part to the successful organic date plantation started by Ayala and Kevin Smith, from which the international brand Zorganika grew.

The plantation is in the Zarzir enclave in the Jordan Valley, a hidden nature reserve on the banks of the river. Very few people have entry permits. After opening her private gate in the separation fence, Ayala’s small car is swallowed up in a wild field of yellow.

“This was a mine field until recently,” she says. “It was amazing to see the army clear it.”

On the way she finds a boulder on the road. She stops the car and moves the stone herself. Suddenly a deer approaches. “What a gorgeous creature,” she says. “This is better than Africa, this is our Israel. My parents have been living here since the Yom Kippur War . My father is a kibbutznik who caught a volunteer, the prettiest Dutch girl in the area. He came here to do pioneering and together they built a farm here. Since then we’ve been here, at the Hamra settlement. Today we employ between 80 and 300 workers, according to the season; women, men, young people, old people, secular people and religious people. And also religious people from other religions.”

She reaches a breathtaking overlook with a view onto her plantation, her life’s work, 1,000 dunams of dates. “We started with 10 dunams, which grew to 100 dunams, which grew to 200, which grew to 1,000.”

The plantation looks symmetrical, planned and precise. There are well-tended trees; each has a sticker documenting the number of dates it’s produced. Smith explains how the tree is tended organically, how it’s nourished with compost, how it’s watered, how the fruit is supervised and how wild boars are kept away.

“It’s hard work,” she says, “but growing dates is in our roots, in Judaism from a long, long time ago. And I love it. The big difference for us, in organic farming, is in the worldview. In the conventional world they look at a problem and attack it. If someone’s ear hurts, they examine the ear. We uphold an outlook that examines the entire picture to understand how we have reached a certain situation and how to prevent it in the future.”

The heat in the Jordan Valley, already in April, is nearly intolerable. Smith goes into her office, where she turns on the air conditioner and plays a promotional film about the company, in English. On the desk are glasses of filtered water and a simple plastic dish of cool, sweet dates. Smith notes that she and her husband were the first people to grow organic Medjool dates in this country, and that 90 percent of their crop is destined for export.

Have you had problems with exporting abroad?

“That’s one of our challenges. Marks & Spencer chose a farmer by blind tasting. We were chosen for six years in a row; we worked with them and we supplied them with organic dates until someone came along claiming we took the Palestinians’ plantations and that we are exploiting them. They didn’t go into whether this was true, they simply canceled their relations with us, and for years now we haven’t been in that situation.

“But there was nothing here before we arrived. We have a huge problem with the customs duty on exports to Europe. To the European Union, these are occupied territories, so we receive no exemption. According to the agreement, the state is supposed to reimburse that money to us. But that reimbursement has been a very long time coming.”

Unlike the other people interviewed for this article, the Smiths maintain close relations with their Palestinian neighbors. Later, in her office full of books by L. Ron Hubbard, the late founder of Scientology, Ayala says they’ve begun giving seminars on the subject to their Palestinian neighbors.

“I don’t mix politics and food, and I don’t boycott,” she says when asked whether she would buy products from Givot Olam, for example. “I buy from a Palestinian the same as I buy from a member of the hilltop youth, and I try not to damage the farmer’s living. If a farmer got up in the morning and grew food, in my eyes that’s holy. Political problems are solved in talks with people. One of the reasons for the calm in the Jordan Valley is that we earn our living together. We learn from each other and we help each other.”

‘There was nothing here’

Yinon Rosenblum has been living on Moshav Na’ama in the Jordan Valley since 1983 and has been growing organic cucumbers in greenhouses there since 1999. “We started here from zero − there was nothing here, nothing at all,” he says. “No one had ever settled in this area. The lands are marginal, they’re not suitable for agriculture. We have Jericho to the south, Ouja to the north ... and here we have lands no one ever thought would be used for agriculture.”

Rosenblum complains that people confuse organic cucumbers with those sold in the small plastic boxes.

“They confuse old-fashioned flavor with organic. People don’t know what organic is. I spray too − there are natural organic substances you would enjoy smelling. They’re made of tea tree oil, seaweed, extract of Persian lilac − all kinds of nice things. I have help from insects that come from Sde Eliyahu and attack pests, but they aren’t cheap. This is an expensive hobby. Because I can’t swell the fruit with fertilizer and water, it’s very flavorful, though it doesn’t yield quantities like regular cucumbers.”

He plucks a small cucumber from its plant and snaps the yellow blossom off. I taste it.

“Very good, no?”

What are the difficulties in growing organic cucumbers?

“The cucumber is a Sisyphean crop. You’re always planting, cultivating, harvesting, uprooting and planting again. Only some of the blossoms yield fruit. The others atrophy, dry up and fall off. There’s a lot of work here all the time. You have to know how to deal with failure and not stop. Compared to conventional agriculture, this is more complicated and difficult, so there aren’t many organic farmers.”

Organic farmers in the territories have a hard time answering the question of what local pests they confront. They stop, chuckle, and talk about aphids. The exception is Avri Ran of Givot Olam, who replies: “Peace Now helicopters. There are no other pests here, because they saw the Peace Now helicopters and fled. The Jews are a persecuted people, and they’re deceiving themselves if they think that if they persecute themselves others will persecute them less.”

As for cooperation with the neighbors, he agrees with Erez Ben-Saadon. “There is is no such thing as Arab agriculture around here. The conditions on the hill require good farmers, and they don’t have the motivation to be good farmers. It doesn’t interest them. That you see them plowing the soil with a donkey and harvesting olives from the trees − that isn’t agriculture, organic or otherwise. In any case, the donkey isn’t going to carry a sprayer. It’s political agriculture.”

Would you want to teach them, so that you could cooperate with farmers from the nearby villages?

Ran: “In Afghanistan − why, of course. I wouldn’t have any problem there. We’re trying to talk about justice. If only we could reach some level where there would be dialogue. After all, it’s important that we be fair, real and honest people ... Believe me, when there are tears in a child’s eyes, no one asks who the child is and where he comes from. Among us, at least. It’s been our luck to have to fight because until 50 or 60 years ago, our only fate was to be slaughtered.”



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