From Rooftop to Salad Bowl: Farming in Tel Aviv's Urban Jungle

Three enterprising farmers use hydroponic methods to grow veggies atop Dizengoff Center in the heart of Tel Aviv and offer them freshly picked on a daily basis.

Yarok Ba’ir (Green in the City), Dizengoff Center.
Dan Perez

The time is 10 A.M. After almost four hours of work in the vegetable garden, the farmers take fresh produce that was picked at dawn – green and red lettuce, celery, spinach and scallions – and descend from the rooftop to the commercial center to sell their wares.

The brigade of farmers – Mendi Falk, Shaked Golan and Niv Maman – make their way quickly via covered walkways, escalators and staircases, carrying crates of green leaves and pails of water. In each of the tiny stalls that have cropped up recently all over Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv, they arrange the produce.

Despite the high pressure of a farmer’s day, they meticulously and purposefully arrange the bunches of vegetables as though they were bouquets of fresh flowers. Using blackboards and chalk, they diligently prepare small signs that indicate the price of the various vegetables (6-8 shekels a bunch). Above the stall next to the Israel Discount Bank, the largest and busiest point of sale, they hang a sign with the following text: “These vegetables are alive / And in the fridge they won’t thrive. / Keep them with some water in a jar / And they’ll last better by far.”

“Who’s the poet?” asks Maman in surprise. “S. Golan himself,” replies Falk with a snicker. Whereupon the writer flexes his muscles; a lyrical soul is hidden in the body of the farmer and rugby player from the Jezreel Valley. Next to the stall, regular customers are waiting. They are now accustomed to buying greens that were picked the same day together with their roots, for a lunchtime salad.

“Today you’re late,” they scold the farmers affectionately. These customers have changed their typical Israeli consumer habits: Instead of buying large quantities of food products and storing them, they purchase very small quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables daily. They seem to be residents of the neighborhood, and the visit to Dizengoff Center has become part of their daily routine.

Bok choy.
Dan Perez

Several confused passersby take an interest when they see the Asian bok choy. (“What’s that? What do you do with it? Is it like mangold?”)

Lovely bok choy, the farmers’ pride and joy, is not particularly popular. “Even among restaurants that buy our produce, maybe a restaurant and a half takes it,” admits Falk sadly. He manages the urban hydroponic farm (where vegetables grow in water), built on an area of 600 square meters on the roof of Israel’s first mall.

“People are moving to crowded cities with high-rise construction,” adds Falk, “and the problem of producing and transporting food to residents is steadily increasing. Our real challenge is not growing the vegetables – the technology exists, and there’s no question that hydroponics is the best thing for urban agriculture – but selling them. We’re dealing with problems that have almost disappeared along with the disappearance of small farmers: what variety of vegetables to raise on a small area, and how to bridge the gap between the needs and desires of the local consumer and those of the farmer.

“The next stage of our vision is a network of farms on city rooftops – this is the first – that will cooperate with one another. We’re already involved in advanced negotiations with other commercial rooftops in the city. We want urban consumers to order vegetables from the farm nearest their home, but it’s possible that the various farms will cooperate to complete the basket of vegetables on offer.”

Maman, who is in charge of selling the produce to restaurants, greengrocers and home consumers, opens the cash register to examine the previous day’s take. “We wanted to be farmers; in the end we’ve become stall owners,” he says goodnaturedly. The stalls are self-service, unattended and based on trust. The farmers arrive to replenish the stock only twice a day, and customers put money in the cash register by themselves (or make a credit payment using a barcode and a cellular device). The farmers report 70 to 80 percent success – only 20 or 30 percent take vegetables without paying.

Mendi Falk in Yarok Ba’ir (Green in the City), Dizengoff Center.
Dan Perez

Earlier that same day

Six A.M. on the roof of Dizengoff Center. The moon is still visible in the slowly brightening sky, and Shaked Golan arrives at work on a bicycle. “I used to start the morning opposite Mount Gilboa; now I begin the day opposite the towers of Tel Aviv,” says the moshavnik from the Jezreel Valley. Mendi Falk, who lives with his family on Kibbutz Haogen in the Sharon region, has already been on the roof for at least an hour.

They prepare the first coffee of the day, wait for Maman to join, and sip it leisurely, looking out at the nearby buildings, illuminated by the pink-and-orange light of sunrise. Then the farmers enter the covered maze of hothouses to begin the daily harvest. The commercial farm was built in February 2016 by the Dizengoff Center sustainability department and Yarok Ba’ir (Green in the City), a company specializing in innovative urban agriculture. It is composed of two hothouse complexes and has a teaching farm where various techniques of hydroponic agriculture are demonstrated. Workshops, lectures and cooking courses are offered.

Salad greens, the crop that was chosen for the time being because of its short growing cycle, are rooted in water, and are planted on Styrofoam surfaces called floating rafts. “What does a plant need?” Falk asks volunteers on their first day of work, and answers his own question: “Light, water, air and nutrients. Soil is the classic base. But it doesn’t perform magic. If you don’t nourish the soil, the plant won’t grow. Here water is the base. Look at me – I left a decade of work in high-tech because I wanted to be a farmer who cultivates his land, and I turned out to be a farmer who cultivates water. We aerate the water with a simple hose that creates bubbles, as in an aquarium, so that there’s almost no need to change the water. Once a week we add fertilizer, and if pesticides are needed, we use only substances approved for organic farming.”

Falk shows the new volunteers how to pick – you “uproot” the plant from its place on the floating raft along with its roots, and roll them around the base of the plant. The leaves are sold together with their roots, and once at home, should be kept outside the refrigerator in a jar with water to a height of 1 centimeter (so the water won’t cover the air roots of the plants) – in order to maintain the freshness and crispness of the leaves.

The green leaves in the car.
Dan Perez

After harvesting, packing (to the strains of Bob Marley) and filling up the stalls in the commercial center, Maman is ready to distribute fresh produce to nearby restaurants and cafes, including Café Barzilay, Café Mersand and Café Baccio. The trunk of a tiny rented Car2Go is packed to the brim with greens and is on its way.

Everyone wants to deliver the basket of red lettuce designated for Le Moulin, Moti Haimovich’s neighborhood bakery, because of the Gouda sandwich (a hard baguette crust, soft yellow butter, Gouda cheese, urban red lettuce and homemade pickles). Moti’s sandwich is an exception at lunch, which is usually composed of greens from the farm, eaten with fresh bread and tahini. After lunch, it’s back to planting and their many farm chores.

Green in the City (Yarok Ba’ir) – Urban agriculture on the roof of Dizengoff Center, Tel Aviv. For more information: www.yarok-bair.co.il