Israel's Last Raisin Factory Refuses to Shrivel Up

Meiri Lavi is the owner of the last raisin factory in Israel. Why is he continuing to produce these special treats, despite overwhelming competition from California?

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Raisins at Meiri Lavi's factory.
Raisins at Meiri Lavi's factory.Credit: Dan Perez
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered
Ronit Vered

The raisin man believes that nobody should work more than six hours a day. “In the pre-modern era, people worked even less,” says Meiri Lavi in a quiet voice. “As a result of the Industrial Revolution people – including unfortunate children – were forced to work 16 and 18 hours a day. In the social struggle to limit the enslavement, which paradoxically brought about technological progress, it was decided that people would work eight hours. I think even that’s too much. You work six hours a day, and the rest of the day is devoted to reading, thinking and staring into space.”

Lavi practices what he preaches. At 6 A.M. he picks up the young people who work with him in the vineyards from the Nehusha junction, not far from his home in Givat Yeshayahu. They arrive at the vineyard of wine grapes on the route of the ancient Roman road that led from Jerusalem to Ashkelon and gather around their beloved employer-teacher. They are youngsters about to go into the army or recently discharged, and Lavi has known most of them since they were babies.

In the vineyard the nascent fruit has ceased to emit its fragrance, and the time has come to thin out some of the tiny grapes that have not yet matured. After a short explanation and a practical demonstration, the group disperses to its daily work, which continues until midday (“I pay them, as is customary, for eight hours of work, but they work only six,” stresses Lavi).

They work in the vineyards most of the week. Lavi cultivates 20 dunams of table grapes and 80 dunams of wine grapes, in a region with hundreds of ancient wine presses. One day a week, depending on the declining market demand, the group works in the raisin factory, which is located in the backyard of the farm in Givat Yeshayahu.

In ancient times, travelers wrote in amazement of the raisins of Eretz Israel, especially the sweet ones originating in the areas of Ramle, Hebron and the Jerusalem hills. But in present-day Israel, we eat mainly raisins that are imported from California. “Until quite recently there were six raisin factories in Israel,” says Lavi. “Chronologically, I was the last to join their ranks. In recent years the factories have closed one after another, and last year, when the factory in Lachish closed, I remained the owner of the last active raisin factory. In order to make a kilogram of raisins you need six kilos of grapes. It’s not economically viable. You have to be crazy to produce raisins.”

Meiri Lavi at work sorting raisins.  'I stay because I enjoy it.'
Meiri Lavi at work sorting raisins. 'I stay because I enjoy it.'Credit: Dan Perez

Meiri Lavi was born in 1955 in Ramat Gan. He served as a Phantom pilot in the Israel Air Force, and at the age of 28, wanting to retire from army life and city life, he bought a farm in Givat Yeshayahu and planted vineyards there. He didn’t touch the wild plants in the garden of his house, and didn’t plant orderly rows of cultivated plants. In late spring the bushes of wild hyssop (za’atar) continue to emit a strong scent, and pink columns of hollyhocks (alcea rosea) stand tall. Every year on Tu Bishvat (Jewish Arbor Day) he made sure to plant at least one tree, and today carob, olive and other trees provide shade in the lovely wild garden.

In the early years Lavi grew mainly table grapes in his vineyards; he opened the raisin factory in 1989 for practical reasons. “Every viticulturist has almost a ton of grapes every year that he can’t sell, because they’re not attractive enough,” he says. “In nature the grape is the size of a match head, but the modern consumer, who knows nothing about grapes, chooses them like a child – only according to size and beauty. One rotten grape in a bunch – a sign of the ripeness and juiciness of the fruit – disqualifies it for sale. A bunch of grapes that is not symmetrical, like the imagined grapes of Joshua’s spies, requires manual work to straighten, which doesn’t justify the cost. People who tell me that my wild garden isn’t pretty are the same people who don’t buy small, sweet grapes, which are naturally imperfect.”

The rejected grapes are thrown out, or become raisins, which are no longer a profitable business. “It wasn’t always like that,” says Lavi. “Raisins are a way to preserve energy, and for hundreds of years were an important source of food for the inhabitants of the region. During the grape harvest the vineyards all ripen at the same time, and anyone who doesn’t own a refrigerator can’t eat the entire crop within two weeks. You eat a little, and from most of the grapes you make wine or raisins in order to continue to use them all year long.”

On the table outside the raisin factory breakfast is served: rolls, butter, honey and raisins from three different types of grapes – protected from flies under a dense net. Alongside the breakfast table is a pile of books, and during breaks, the lyrical raisin man reads his young friends selections from Meir Shalev’s “My Wild Garden” or T.C. Boyle’s “A Friend of the Earth.” When the machine that separates the dried grapes from their stems is operating, millions of raisins vibrate on the assembly line and it’s hard to hold a conversation.

Raisins ready to be separated from their stems.
Raisins ready to be separated from their stems.Credit: Dan Perez

No profit for the farmer

During the harvest season, between August and October, viticulturists leave the grapes to dry on nets that are spread out in the area. In the past they were left to dry naturally in the sunlight for a month or two; today they are sprayed with potassium carbonate in order to crack the natural wax coating and shorten the evaporation process to 10 days. (Due to the preferences of supermarket chains and modern consumers, only seedless table grapes are dried for raisins.)

The farmers bring their dried bunches of grapes to the raisin factory, which separates the grapes from the stems and prepares the raisins for packaging and distribution. “The closing of the factories attests to the fact that there’s no work volume,” says Lavi. “In recent years, when the price of grapes has increased and there’s actually room in the market for fruit of a lower quality, almost no grapes are dried for raisins. We can’t compete with the imports from California.

“In Israel we produce only 10 percent of local consumption. Farmers in California have the advantage of size and there, as opposed to here, there are designated fields for grapes and raisins - and everything related to water, labor and regulation is cheaper. A kilo of raisins from California, including transportation, costs less than a dollar. I pay the Israeli farmer a dollar for the raw ingredients, and he doesn’t even profit from that. I know the numbers better than anyone because I myself am a farmer and a vintner.

“There’s no profit for the farmer here, it’s a decision – not to throw away the imperfect grapes. And because there’s no profit for the farmer, only for the factory owner and the raisin dealer – the industry has atrophied. There were years when I produced 300 tons of raisins a year. Last year I produced 50 tons of grapes, even though I’m the last factory left.”

Raisins at Meiri Lavi's factory.
Raisins at Meiri Lavi's factory.Credit: Dan Perez

And still the raisin man, who always looks somewhat sad, insists on keeping the factory open. “The equipment is here, the investment has already been made. It’s an industry that’s going to disappear, but I feel somewhat like a tailor who remains sitting in his little alcove. There are no expenses, whether or not customers come, and I stay because I enjoy it.”

You can purchase raisins from the last raisin factory in a kiosk that works on the honor system – in effect a booth surrounded by plants - which stands in the wild garden on the farm in Givat Yeshayahu. In summer there’s a large selection of different types of raisins – Flame and Crimson, red species grown by Lavi, as well as Sultanina, Superior and other green raisins – and fresh table grapes kept in the refrigerator. At the moment there is only a small selection, plus books offered free from the collection of the viticulturist, who loves the written word. But even the small selection on offer is far better than most of the raisins on sale in the supermarkets, and they contain no preservatives, except for grape sugar. The gate of the raisin man’s house is easy to identify by the bunch of grapes hanging on it.

Lavi Farm, Givat Yeshayahu. In season, signs point the way to the kiosk, and it is easy to find any time once you reach the moshav. Everyone there knows Meiri Lavi and his raisins.