A Sustainable Farm in Central Israel Offers At-risk Youth a Clean Slate

Moshavniks and teens are growing organic vegetables and contributing to the slow food revival in Beerotayim.

Shai Shevah with the first cauliflower of the season.
Dan Peretz

On our way to Beerotayim, east of Netanya, we stop for coffee in Haniel. Next to the grocery store there, a small espresso wagon was set up two months ago – similar to those that have been in operation during the past year in Kfar Yedidia and other moshavim, cooperative villages in Emek Hefer. Customers sit on white bar stools for a quick injection of caffeine. Near the entrance to the moshav there are two improvised citrus fruit stands with bags full of sweet, thick-peeled Washington Navel oranges, red grapefruit and clementines. “Self service. 10 shekels a bag,” says the sign next to a box that serves as a small cash register, based on mutual trust.

We continue to the sustainable Kaima farm in Beerotayim. In a field that extends as far as the eye can see behind the home of Irit and David Shevah are meticulously planted rows of vegetables: cabbage and kohlrabi grow in perfect harmony, and the purple beet leaves look as though they were planted to match the waving manes of the carrots.

“People laugh and say you can see immediately that it’s a women’s farm,” smiles Shai Shevah, born in 1983 and the youngest of the Shevah children. “Although Rami, the farm’s agronomist, also favors perfectly organized rows of vegetables.” Early in the morning, mother and daughter, faithful to the doctrine of perfect rows, uproot weeds that threaten the edible plants. Roni, the second daughter, born in 1975, is planting turnips nearby.

The three Shevah women are the moving spirits behind the new farm, but they are not alone; David is the go-to person. Rami Rubin, an agronomist and resident of Kfar Yavetz, is the agricultural consultant (“We had no knowledge of agriculture when we started. People who know me laughed when they heard I was planning to grow vegetables,” says Shai). Working alongside them are teenagers who have dropped out of school or who need constant supervision.

Irit and David Shevah bought the farm in Emek Hefer 31 years ago. “We were Shabbat farmers,” says Irit, using a common expression in the jargon of the farming settlements. Shabbat farmers make their living outside the moshav, and raise crops that do not require daily work (such as avocados or citrus). “We had avocado orchards, and when it was no longer worthwhile even to continue to water the trees, we uprooted them, like everyone else.”

The land was leased to a farmer from the moshav who remained almost the sole member involved in agriculture. Small-scale agriculture barely exists today and even the few farmers who cultivate large fields find it difficult to make a living from the land.

Fresh vegetables from the Beerotyaim farm.
Dan Peretz

The fields were leased to others for over two decades. Then, four years ago, Irit began hosting breakfasts and brunches in her home. For years, she has been preparing the bread, cheeses, spreads, preserves and other foods served on the family table.

As part of her ideology, Irit started the Emek Hefer Slow Food branch. Her daughter Shai, who joined her, is today coordinator of the Slow Food Youth Network in Israel and earns her living by managing a social media outlet for restaurants and food producers. “I accompany such businesses on a daily basis,” she says. “And still I didn’t think I would be the owner of a vegetable farm. But in conversations with Roni, my older sister, in recent years, we wondered why we continue to live on the moshav. She built her home in our parents’ back yard and I built mine in the expanded part of the moshav, and what would become of this field standing behind the house?

“When we started to formulate the idea, we pictured the model of a sustainable farm that has been operating for the past few years in Beit Zayit. It’s not only an organic farm with community participation that sells the produce directly to regular consumers, it also employs teens who have dropped out of other frameworks.”

Mom is excitable

Last summer the women of the family established a non-profit organization, and together with a group of teenagers from the area, began to prepare the field for cultivation and to plant the vegetables. “We turned to the welfare authorities in Emek Hefer, Netanya and Kalansua and they send us youth in distress who have dropped out of formal frameworks or are undergoing some other crisis. We don’t know their stories ahead of time, we deliberately prefer not to know so that they’ll come here as a tabula rasa,” they say. Now, four months after work began, the cultivated area is already a beautiful, blossoming garden. At present, 3.5 of the 21 dunams are under cultivation; the family intends to have 17 dunams of vegetables and four of organic fruit trees.

“Irit, I have a gift for you,” said D., one of the five teens working with the family as he ran toward her, holding a huge cauliflower, the first of the season. “Mother gets very excited about the vegetables,” say her daughters. “The first cabbage harvest – or God forbid, uprooting entire rows due to a pest or a disease – can easily bring her to tears of excitement or sadness, and the kids learned that quickly.”

Every day at 10:30 A.M., after several hours of work, the group sits down for a shared breakfast based almost entirely on the fresh produce of the young field. They pick dill, whose fragrance overshadows the parsley and coriander; a bunch of carrots stained with soil; fresh lettuce; and colorful radishes. They prepare breakfast together in an open kitchen installed in what was once a stable.

The carrot tops and fresh cabbage are turned into an interesting variety of coleslaw; other vegetables are coarsely cut and topped with local olive oil; and there is a salad of herbs with ginger and orange peel There is also a vegetable omelet, fresh bread baked by Irit and a selection of her home-made spreads, preserves and pickled vegetables; bitter orange jam, fennel jam (sounds strange, but it’s amazingly tasty); pink quince jam with chili; a spread of pickled lemons and hearts of artichoke; a dried tomato spread; and a pesto of green herbs.

Fresh vegetables from the Beerotyaim farm.
Dan Peretz

Is this model economically feasible? We asked the women of the family, trying to understand whether three families can survive nowadays from a small agricultural plot of 21 dunams.

“There’s an orderly business plan,” explains Shai, “and the goal is not profit, but to maintain the farm and instill values – involving teenagers in the life of the fields. The farming does them and us good. And the surrounding community also mobilizes: We received the seeds and the drip irrigation system as a donation; the companies that gave them to us wouldn’t hear of payment, and people who heard about the farm and its goals simply come to work as volunteers for a few hours.”

The sustainable farm in Beerotayim will supply baskets of organic vegetables to customers in the Sharon area and the center of the country, starting in January. Meanwhile, one can come to buy vegetables by advance appointment or on Fridays. Telephone 054-730-3359.