An Israeli Agronomist's Mission to Preserve Local Fruit Species Dating Back 3,000 Years

Agronomist Assaf Bashan explains why fruit doesn’t have to look pretty, nor does it need to keep for months. It just has to be delicious.

Figs. Sweet and delicious.
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“The first thing that drew me into this was the flavor,” says Assaf Bashan, as he gestures toward a row of fig trees planted on the ancient terraces of the Sataf nature reserve near Jerusalem. “There are fruits here of every color, shape and size that you can imagine. They all yield fruit in the summer and are all so sweet and delicious.”

From January through March, shoots are cut from the trees for reproductive purposes. “It’s simple,” says Bashan, holding a pair of shears. “You snip off a relatively young branch and give it the illusion of darkness and moisture. In other words, you place the cutting on a rooting bed. It knows how to put down roots and become a tree. It’s not high-tech; people have been doing it for thousands of years.”

Bashan, 28, grew up roaming the springs, orchards and hidden gardens of the Sataf nature reserve. His father worked for the Jewish National Fund, and the family was permitted to live on the site while he looked after the reserve. This project, which began in the early 1980s, was designed to preserve and recreate traditional agriculture; it includes hundreds of varieties of fruit trees, mainly fig, olive and pomegranate, as well as grapevines – planted on nearly 1,000 dunams (247 acres) of ancient agricultural terraces. “The goal was to create a living museum that would show how people lived in the area 3,000 years ago,” says Bashan, “and to combine it with hiking trails open to the public. There’s a genetic and cultural treasure here comprised of hundreds of varieties of the plants of the seven species. Almost 100 varieties of fig trees that anybody can come and taste during the summer, and dozens more ancient species of grapes and olives.

“This is a genetic and cultural database that evolved over thousands of years and belongs to the entire public. If we don’t preserve this treasure it will disappear. What all the species here have in common is that they grow slowly and they have relatively small fruits with a high sugar content. They are very tasty, but they have the opposite qualities of the fruits that are in demand in modern intensive agriculture – they’re not the most perfect or the prettiest, and they have a short shelf-life.”

A fig tree at the Sataf nature reserve.
Dan Peretz

Commercial species

For millennia, the fruit of the fig tree was a pillar of the local economy. In days of yore, tens of thousands of dunams in this land would be planted with different species of figs. Today, says Dr. Moshe Flaishman of the Volcani Center, there are about 2,500 dunams, yielding 5,000 tons of figs yearly. The Agriculture Ministry puts the figure at just 926 dunams (neither figure includes local species of figs grown in the Arab sector).

“When farmers come to me and say they want to grow fig trees, the first thing I do is warn them about the difficulties,” says Dr. Flaishman. “The main problem is that the fruit doesn’t ripen all at once on the branches, so the fig-picking season stretches out over three months. It’s lovely when you have one or two trees in the garden or on a penthouse balcony and you can pick the fruit at your leisure, but it’s not good for a farmer who wants to harvest the crop in one sweep and not need so many hands to do the work.”

At the Volcani Center, one of the only places in the world that is still trying to enhance fig species, they’ve tackled the problem by developing species that ripen sooner and whose harvest season lasts just three weeks. “We’ve been researching this for two decades,” says Dr. Flaishman. “In the beginning, we tested the local heritage species. When we saw they didn’t have commercial potential, we moved to the next stage, and examined species that we imported from various places in the world. Of all the imported species we focused on one in particular, known as the Brazilian fig. This species now grows in commercial orchards in Israel, and is labeled under the name Figaro.”

Assaf Bashan working in the Sataf nature reserve.
Dan Peretz

The Volcani Center sells new species of figs for commercial growing to different countries – but Bashan is focused on the history, present and future of local heritage species like the sab’I, hamdi, haruvi and shtawi.

“In regular agriculture, which strives to select the outstanding species, these species don’t rate, but people lived on them for thousands of years, and each one had its own niche and its own use. Today, agriculture is increasingly aimed at registering patents, and I’m afraid that one day this knowledge will no longer belong to the general public. These species have no commercial value today, so there’s not much interest in them, but what will happen some day, when the potential is discovered, as with an ancient variety of grape when a commercial winery started producing wine with it?” asks Bashan.

“Dr. Flaishman is trying to create varieties that will suit farmers. I’m going about it the opposite way, trying to preserve species that are suited to the place and to the taste of the general public, and hoping that one day, the same thing that happened to grapes and olives will happen to figs. When people realized the value of quality species in producing olive oil and wine, the whole field was revolutionized. Until that happens, it’s important to preserve the genetic variety.”

Bashan lives in Moshav Tal Shahar and still looks after the trees at Sataf voluntarily (“I want to give back something to the place where I grew up”). He studied agriculture and went on to become a teacher who gives courses on traditional agriculture. “When I was younger I worked in the orchards of Kibbutz Tzuba, in regular agriculture, and the apples we grew there just weren’t tasty to me, despite all the money and effort that went into growing them. Here I pick a fig off a tree that grew without watering and with minimum labor, just a yearly trimming and turning over of the soil, and the fruit is absolutely delicious. The problem is that most people in Israel have no access to trees and fruit like this.”

For the last few years Bashan has been working together with the Shelef Agricultural Laboratory, along with Oded Yafeh and they’ve created a nursery in Givat Brenner for fruit trees from local heritage species. “It wouldn’t have happened without him,” says Bashan. “For commercial farmers and state bodies this kind of project currently lacks economic feasibility. But for community gardens, and people who have private gardens, there are other considerations. People who plant a tree in their private garden, or in a pot on their balcony, don’t need an industrial species. They would likely prefer a smaller fruit with a higher sugar content – a tastier fruit – that doesn’t keep that long in the fridge. Farmers have to make a living, but private individuals can plant these fruits and spread the genetic knowledge. Instead of bringing a check to a wedding, why not give the young couple a local fruit tree?”