Restoring the Glory of the Local Orchards

The Alon family, third- and fourth-generation citrus growers, is bringing back a long-lost trade, while also making sure there are plenty of limes for our daiquiris‏.

Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
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Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

"Spring never leaves this nice place. An orchard of pomegranate, citron and apple trees, always covered with flowers and fruit, adorns the horizon. In the middle, on a low hill, stands a low green structure, reached by a twisting trail that rises toward it in ever-narrowing loops.”

− 11th-century Chinese poem depicting a rural estate, cited in “Citrus Fruits” by Shaul Tolkovsky ‏(1966‏)

Spring never leaves this lovely place in Emek Hefer. Amid the citrus orchards, bordered by a row of olive trees and greenhouses, stands a modest green shed for storing tools. Vines climb the walls, and peeking out from their thick green leaves there are mint, sage and rosemary bushes, and tomato and pepper plants. Sitting under the shady netting, a father and his two sons eat their breakfast − dark rye bread, labaneh, olives and coarsely chopped fresh vegetables glistening with drops of fresh lemon juice.

Uri Lemon − that’s what local chefs and restaurateurs call the father. His two sons are known as Ben and Gal Lime, as in days of yore when a person’s trade was the source of his reputation and the name by which he was known in the community. Their actual surname is Alon, and before earlier generations Hebraized it, the family trade was tending orchards.

Thus goes the tale: In 1903, Dov Klutzman made aliyah from Russia with his mother and six siblings. He and three of his siblings made their home in the Hadera colony, and in 1934, Dov planted his first citrus orchard next to Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh.

To support his family, Dov also manufactured wagon wheels and horseshoes, and rented cabins to the pioneers − Hadera old-timers still fondly remember “the Klutzman courtyard” where there were five cabins for rent. The crown jewel was the orchards ‏(“In those days, tending orchards was akin to dealing in
diamonds,” his descendants sigh
wistfully‏).

Chaim Klutzman ‏(Alon‏), Dov’s son, worked alongside his father and eventually took his place amid the rows of citrus trees. His son Uri still remembers the daily trip to the orchards on a mule-drawn wagon, and how his father − secretary of the Haganah pre-state militia in Hadera − used to hide smuggled weapons among the bales of hay on the wagon.

Gal and Ben, the fourth generation, also began working in the orchards as children. “Every day, summer or winter, Dad would wait for us at the school entrance to take us to the orchard,” they recall with affection. “We grew oranges, lemons, tangerines and green pomelits ‏(a cross between a pomelo and a grapefruit‏) for the Japanese market − a demanding and tricky crop that was a big success, and Dad would always say that one day we’d sell oranges in Damascus. His predictions of peace in the Middle East didn’t come true, and the Israeli orchard industry also totally collapsed.”

The bad years for citrus growers began in the mid-1980s. The Alons describe years of drought and years in which the tristeza virus ‏(how sad and poetic disease names can be‏) blighted the orchards. Like other local citrus growers, they were unable to cope with the plummeting prices, in the shadow of growing international competition with the United States and Europe, and the increase in the cost of water and fertilizer.

In the mid-1990s, the family orchards were uprooted and the land was leased to flower growers. Uri Alon traveled to Cuba in 1997, answering the call of former Mossad officer Rafi Eitan to establish huge citrus farms there ‏(tens of thousands of dunams each‏). His two sons both gave up agriculture and went into other fields − one to the import business and the other to high-tech.

Cuban chapter

“The most important composition in Arabic literature concerning the curative properties of citrus fruit and how to make use of them is a book by a Cairene Jew, Abu al-Ashr Hibatallah ibn Zineddin Muwafiq el-Din, known as Ibn Jami, the court physician to Sultan Saladin ‏(1171-1193‏). This great scholar was so admired by his contemporaries that they referred to him as Shams al-Riyasat ‏(“Sun of the Leaders of the People”‏). His ‘Treatise on the Lemon,’ his most famous work, has been preserved.”

− from “Citrus Fruits” by Shaul Tolkovsky

Uri Alon spent eight years working in Cuba. ‏(“The Cuba chapter, including the connection with Fidel Castro, deserves a whole book of its own,” he says.‏) When he returned to Israel in 2005 he informed his sons that he planned to restore the family citrus-growing business to its past glory. Lemons had always been part of the family crop ‏(“In harvest season, in addition to marketing in Israel and exporting abroad, we also sold lemons and oranges directly to Cafe Alexander and other pioneers of the Tel Aviv restaurant scene”‏), and during his time in the Caribbean he also came to know and love other tart members of the citrus family, with its multitude of species and rich history. In 2008, the first citrus trees were replanted on the family land, and more are always being added. Ben left his job to become a full-time farmer, while Gal helps manage the business and market the crop.

The Alon-Lemon family’s orchard surrounding the little green hut has Villa Franca lemon trees − this is the light yellow lemon most common in Israel, but mainly Interdonato lemon trees, a large Sicilian strain prized for its aromatic peel and rich sweet-sour flavor. There is also a fascinating experimental section, and long columns of lime trees. On the branches of the young lime trees one finds a remarkable sight: new blossoms alongside ripening fruit. An advanced agricultural method to obtain three blossoming cycles makes it possible to extend the lime tree’s short season from two months to six.

The lime, one of the smallest and most aromatic members of the citrus family, originally comes from northeast India. Arab traders brought it to the Middle East and southern Europe, and from there it was transported by Spanish and Portuguese explorers to the New World and the Caribbean islands. Despite the fruit’s wonderful attributes, Israeli farmers are not keen on planting lime orchards, and demand outstrips supply. Lime trees are more delicate than other citrus trees, more susceptible to diseases that can quickly wipe out an entire orchard, and their fruit season is relatively short considering how many months of careful cultivation is required.

“Most of the local crop goes for export,” says Gal. “The brief window of time when the lime crop is yielded in Israel corresponds exactly to the time when there is a shortage of fresh limes in the South American and Central American orchards, so in the local market, what you usually find are only the limes that were not selected for export. Growers have no interest in trying to keep the fruit on the trees. They aim for a quick harvest and to ship them overseas. We made it our goal to supply the local market with a quality fruit over a six-month period. In addition to the yield from our orchard, this year we searched high and low all over the country, from orchards on the Gaza border all the way up to Metulla − and we found a few farmers whom we are training and marketing their lime crop in Israel. We paid them ahead of time, every farmer’s dream, and in return they committed to grow the crop according to our method.”

In recent years, orchards have become a more common sight again in this country − in the northern Negev and the Sharon thousands of dunams of citrus trees have been replanted − but the old model of small orchards on family farms has vanished for good. The Alon family’s orchard is larger than the traditional orchards were in the past, but still much smaller than the large orchards maintained by the few farmers who work other fields, or the big companies that have entered the field.

The family’s business model is for a “boutique orchard” ‏(“each tree gets special attention”‏) and is based first and foremost upon the skills and knowledge amassed by Uri, the father. At first glance, the new orchards look like the ones of old, but a closer look reveals some of the differences, even to the layman − the trees, low and densely packed together, are planted on mounds of dirt, and amid all the green foliage there is a small open window that lets the sun
caress the fruit.

The family picks the lemons and limes each day at five in the morning. The circumference of each fruit is measured with a metal ring to ensure it is the perfect size, and at 8 A.M. the fruit is sent off to cafes, bars and restaurants ‏(The Alon family joined forces with Aleh-Aleh, neighbors in the valley that supply select farm produce to restaurants so that consumers can enjoy the fresh produce.

Chefs like Meir Adoni and Eyal Shani use them in an array of dishes, but the easiest way to appreciate the greatness of the aromatic lime and to understand why its aficionados want to use it 12 months a year, is to order an endless round of lime drinks at the Imperial Craft Cocktail Bar in Tel Aviv, another one of the Alon family’s customers. Start with a classic daiquiri, our salvation in this weather − gallons of the stuff ought to be served to anyone who has to leave the house; continue with a Maid in Cuba, a revivifying nectar based on white rum, sugar syrup, mint and cucumber; or a margarita with honey and smoked salt. There is also the Hemingway-style margarita ‏(Papa liked his drink rich in alcohol and without sugar‏) or a local tribute called “The Weary Hemingway” for whoever wishes to follow in the Caribbean footsteps of the silver-bearded romantic.

Limes from the Alon family orchards.Credit: Dan Peretz
Gal, Uri and Ben Alon in the orchard.Credit: Dan Peretz

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