Little House in the Desert

On their Negev farm in Ezuz, the Arazuni family cultivates fruits and vegetables using techniques developed by the Nabateans 1,500 years ago.

Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
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Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

Here, deep in the heart of a desolate wilderness, lies a farm. The land, 50 dunams ‏(12.5 acres‏) of it, is situated in the parched channel of the Ezuz stream and is divided into seven strips, separated from one another by stone terraces. The highest of the strips is the vegetable garden, and during this season, early winter, the furrows are filled with cucumbers, eggplants, enormous cabbages and radishes large and small. The next four strips of land are planted with fruit orchards that include citrus, peaches, apricots, apples, figs, olives, dates, grapes and other fruits planted in diverse confusion. The last two parcels of land are, so far, uncultivated, but are designated for field crops.

“When we start to grow wheat, barley and corn on our own, we will essentially become an autarkic farm,” says Avi Arazuni, the father of the family running the farm, as he gets out of his “all terrain vehicle” − a dusty, old and doorless Subaru pickup. His wife, Tamar, has been out in the field since the early morning, planting coriander, on her knees in the long furrows dug into the loess soil.

Tamar and Avi Arazuni arrived in Ezuz 12 years ago. The process of receiving a permit to set up their farm and plant the orchard lasted for three years. The remote locale is not defined as an agricultural settlement. The family − Tamar, Avi and their four children − spent another three years preparing the land, building terraces from stone, straw and mud, and digging a network of drainage canals that is modeled on the prototype left by ancient farmers in the Negev heights. All of this arduous labor was done with the goal of working the fields exclusively on the basis of the natural precipitation in this arid region, where the average annual rainfall is 60 millimeters.

Remnants of ancient terraces and piles of stones that once formed walls bordering long-vanished fields provide evidence of the flourishing agriculture that once existed in the region between the 4th and 7th centuries C.E.

Flash-flood irrigation

In the Byzantine period, when fortresses and trading posts along the Spice Route became permanent settlements, the descendants of the Nabateans raised wheat and barley, various fruit trees and − the jewel in the crown − grapes for wine and olives for oil, both of which had an outstanding reputation among the regional peoples.

This phenomenon happened in a world without sprinklers or man-made reservoirs. It was the product of proper exploitation of the scant rainfall in the region, which often brings floods.

When even a minimal amount of rain falls, a thin crust forms on the upper layer of the loess soil, through which the water can barely penetrate. When the rain continues to fall, the water from the heights flows into the streambeds and causes flash floods.

The ancient farmers built a system of terraces, dams and drainage canals that gather the rainwater flowing over the surface, shifting it from large collection pools into smaller ones.

The water, which would gradually seep into the ground once the flash flood ended, saturated the roots of the crops for an entire year.

“I went through all the documentation of rainfall in the region for the past 30 years,” says Avi, “and on average there are two to six flash floods a year − sufficient to maintain our farm. Of course, as though to poke fun at the statistics, in the past three years we’ve experienced a harsh drought. There were massive flash floods four years ago that cut the settlement off from the rest of the world for a few days, and flooded the fields with water. Waterfalls formed between the terraces, and the children actually went swimming in the canals we had dug between the trees. Last year there were only two tiny flash floods, and now we are left with no choice but to irrigate the orchard once a month. But still, if we didn’t have water stored in the ground from the flash floods of past years, we would have had to irrigate the land proactively with six times more water. What’s more, I fervently believe that the water from flash floods is holistic water. It is full of alluvium and minerals, like the water of the Nile that fertilizes the lush Delta, and this flowing water has other positive attributes as well.”

The theoretical and practical research work conducted by Prof. Michael Evenari, a botanist who was among the pioneers of desert agriculture research in Israel, and who established experimental farms that implemented the ancient techniques, has served as a source of inspiration to Arazuni.

“I learned from him the doctrine of surface-flow agriculture,” says Avi, who prior to engaging in working the land was a stonemason. “But he combined irrigation by flash flood water with conventional agriculture. I had never worked in agriculture, and that was my advantage. I came tabula rasa. I don’t know modern agriculture, which is essentially an industry. With us, everything is trial and error. Agriculture guides come here and say, ‘What are you doing? This isn’t agriculture!’

“I am seeking what is good for the tree, not for the agricultural consultant or the bank manager. I don’t push the tree. I give it a minimum of water and I avoid fertilizers, even those that are approved by the organic standards board. Zero fertilizers and sprays. Because I don’t intervene, nature does its own thing, and the ecological balance is maintained. As soon as an aphid shows up, so does its natural enemy, the ladybug. The fruit fly, the only creature that has no natural enemy, forces us to cover the fruits in netting. We choke the couch grass by placing flattened cardboard right up against soil with the help of stones, and this primitive and unusual method works.”

In our backyard

The total isolation and the virgin soil of the farm, which is dozens of kilometers from any other agricultural field, undoubtedly account for the Arazunis’ ability to grow fruits and vegetables without the need for organic or conventional pesticides. It is not certain that these principles could be implemented in more densely populated areas of Israel, or that this type of agriculture could be sustained on a larger scale. But it may very well be that the fruits and vegetables grown in this southern Israeli orchard are the only ones grown in Israel in a completely natural way. It is here that we can see how great a distance man has gone from nature, to the extent that fruits and vegetables grown without pesticides and irrigated solely by rainwater are the exceptions to the rule.

Sometimes the yields are good, sometimes less so. Once a week, Avi drives to Tel Aviv to supply the customers of the farming cooperative with crates of the week’s produce. Unlike other organic farms, here they do not complement the weekly crop with produce from elsewhere. If the zucchini has powdery mildew ‏(a fungal disease‏), the farmer lets the plants deal with the disease on their own, and that week he does not deliver any zucchini. Frequently, the Arazunis say, the plants succeed in overcoming such threats by themselves. Tomatoes, a serious challenge to anyone determined to raise them naturally far from their native lands, are often missing from the produce basket, even though it is difficult today to imagine a weekly menu without them.

“Vegetables and fruits grown this way are not always the best looking in the world, but they have a concentrated flavor that is different,” says Arazuni. “The trees we planted six years ago produce good amounts of fruit relative to the local growing conditions, but in comparison with industrial agriculture, we get only about half the yield of an ordinary orchard. We balance that by selling directly to the customers. But still, our fruits and vegetables are more expensive than those raised with the usual agricultural methods. We aren’t getting rich from it, but the model we’ve built − of a small farm that is meant to supply the weekly consumption needs of a few dozen families − is meant to make it possible for us to earn a living. I don’t desire anything beyond that. In the first year, we raised the prices of the season’s first fruits and vegetables, as is common practice in the retail market. In the second year, we no longer did that, because there was a feeling it was improper and unjustified.”

The family, like the other 15 families living in this dismal Negev settlement, operates outside the confines of the modern Western pace of life. They wake up early to work in the fields, but are meticulous about coming home for an afternoon nap in the railroad cars that serve as their homes. In place of the more customary stone houses, most of the “buildings” at Ezuz are a patchwork of metal supports and inexpensive materials. There is no TV; only a film projector that occasionally serves for a festive movie showing. There are no newspapers, and almost no one surfs the Internet.

The source of the food on the family table is the family farm. The cheeses are made from the milk of the goats in the yard; the chickens that live alongside them supply the eggs; and the summer fruits are placed on drying tables to produce delicious dried fruit, devoid of preservatives. The four Arazuni children were homeschooled until relatively late in childhood.

Anyone who comes to live in this remote place, awash in alluvium and yellow sand, generally does not mind being alone. “I really don’t know what they are doing,” says Avi, shrugging his shoulders when he is asked how his neighbors earn a living. “I can knock on their door at two in the morning if I need something urgently, but the rest of the time I choose not to do so.”

The Arazuni Family Farm is in Nahal Ezuz
Web: http://bustanezuz.blogspot.co.il (in Hebrew)
Tel.: 08-6573758, 054-9952050

No smiles

Alien passersby are received with an expression somewhere between indifference and scorn; the myth about warm hospitality in the desert proves to be completely false. But the beautiful landscape, with the Turkish railway bridge over Nahal Be’erotayim, nearly compensates for it all. If one adds to this a glass of beer or wine produced by one of the local wineries, one can forget the rest. (We are perfectly willing to pick up our orders from the counter and clear the dishes from the table by ourselves, but there is no need to scold; the palm frond hedge, resembling Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones, is frightening enough.) The menu includes pizza and pita from the taboun, and a selection of salads and appetizers. Everything is fresh, prepared when the order is placed, but is not especially high quality. The truly best option for eating in the region is not that far away − in regional terms, of course − at the Shivta Farm.

Cafe B’Sukkah, Ezuz, Tel. 054-4226330

Say cheese

“Lots of people have been coming here in the past few years,” murmurs Celia Farida in semi-surprise, as she spreads some goat cheese. “Thirty years ago, when we first settled here, only a handful of people came to see with their own eyes these crazy people who’d decided to live on the hill in the middle of nowhere.”

“Lots” is a relative and subjective term. In the middle of the week, you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of cars entering Ezuz. But those who do come usually pay a visit to the Farida family dairy. The cheeses are produced only between March and October, as befits those who rely solely on the milk of the local herd of goats. Even when the selection is relatively limited, it is possible to find wonderful cheeses here, like the one soaked in vinegar ‏(which has a rich blue cheese flavor, even without the mold‏), an outstanding tomme, and a hard cheese that is well suited to being grated onto pasta. In season, the selection is greater, and includes a variety of good fresh cheeses.

Be’erotayim Sheep, Ezuz.
Tel.: 08-6555889

Avi and Tamar Arazuni.Credit: Dan Peretz
The railroad cars that are called home.Credit: Dan Peretz

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