From a traditional straw picnic basket containing cloth napkins emerge a brown, crispy sourdough bread; sheep’s milk cheese; radishes, turnips and other fresh vegetables that were picked hours earlier in the nearby vegetable garden; small jars of preserves from the same garden: cauliflower or herb spreads, fennel in olive oil and orange jam. Dining al fresco – especially at a time when people don’t often take pleasure in being idle and laid back – not only satisfies the body but also elevates the mind and the imagination.
Two months ago, Farma Cultura, an organic vegetable farm in Moshav Bnei Zion, north of Ra’anana, started to prepare picnic baskets based on seasonal crops and on produce from neighboring farmsteads and small food manufacturers from the Sharon and Emek Hefer regions. Those who wish can purchase a prepacked basket in the farm’s store and head for a picnic in the area. Most people, though, choose to stay and dine on the beautiful grounds of the farm, even though it doesn’t supply standard catering services other than a few random tables and places to sit scattered between the garden beds and the farm buildings.
“We started with the baskets, because people just wanted to stay and eat here, not only to buy and go on,” says Gil Shaham-Amit, who with her partner, Nadav, has for the past few years been working the neglected land she inherited from her family in the Sharon District of central Israel. “The intention from the outset was to create a model of a sustainable farm on which there is minimum waste. We want to give surplus vegetables – those that don’t get sold or don’t look attractive enough to consumers – a longer shelf life, but in a natural way, using traditional methods of pickling, preservation and fermentation. Not by freezing them or adding artificial preservatives.”
The picnic baskets, like the special meals (also based on the farm’s produce) that are now on offer here, are prepared by chef Adi Motil. Says Gil: “We wanted the hand and palate of a professional to process the vegetables and get across to people the principle by which we live and are trying to promote: consuming what grows in its natural season and how field crops can be enjoyed creatively the whole year round.”
Gil and Nadav – she was born in 1982, he in 1978 – are from the third generation of Israeli land settlement. She grew up in Moshav Ein Yahav, in the Arava desert, he in Kibbutz Kfar Hanassi, in Upper Galilee. Neither of them, like most of their generation, planned to be a farmer. Children whose parents had to struggle to make a living in a world of global food systems and intensive monocrop agriculture had no intention of placing their trust in working the land.
“I studied interior design,” Gil says, “and Nadav majored in international relations. We actually met in the United States, where we lived and worked for many years.”
When they returned to Israel, in 2008, they made their home in Tel Aviv, where their first child, a daughter, was born. They first started to think about life outside the city three years later, and looked for a house in moshavim in the center of the country. Ultimately, they found themselves returning to land that belonged to Asher Sigmund Hand, Gil’s maternal grandfather, who was one of the founders of Bnei Zion.
Born in Berlin in 1914, Hand immigrated to Palestine, then under the British mandate, in 1936. “He studied agronomy in Berlin,” says his granddaughter, who barely knew him. “When Hitler came to power, he and his mother fled to France. From there he moved to Italy, joining workers recruited by Mussolini to drain the swamps of the Po Valley, and toward the end of the war he was a volunteer in the Jewish Brigade [of the British Army].”
Hand’s biography – he married four times, fathered three daughters and was alienated from them for most of his life – is somewhat obscure to his descendants. “He was a hard man who intimidated people,” Gil says. “We know he was in Berlin and Amsterdam, he parachuted into a region that was under German occupation and he helped transmit information to the British Army. When he got back to this country, he worked in the Jewish Agency and in the Ministry of Agriculture.”
Trial and error
Hand grew vegetables and legumes for his own use in his farmyard in Bnei Zion. But at a time when most of the local farmers switched to modern, intensive agriculture – progressive methods and use of pesticides were making Israeli agriculture world famous – Hand remained throughout his life an advocate of agriculture that improves and enhances the soil by natural and organic means. “He was an instructor in soil fertility and he taught schoolchildren how to prepare compost,” says his granddaughter. “He acclimatized and cultivated species of Jerusalem artichoke and rhubarb – at a time when no one in Israel had heard of those vegetables – and he wrote articles about organic agriculture.”
When he retired, Hand set up a hothouse for houseplants in a beautiful glass structure that’s still standing. After his death in 1987, his (fourth) wife stopped working the land. When she died, intensive-agriculture orchards were planted in some of the farming areas.
“In 2012, when we got here,” Gil recalls, “nature and neglect had already claimed a large part of the land. The truth is that it was gorgeous. Plants and cacti grew wild, and we carved a trail on ground strewn with pottery shards. But the neighbors complained about the neglect. It took us almost a year to clear the land and the buildings of refuse and fallen branches. Part of the challenge in designing the farm was to preserve the unique character that was bestowed on it by Granddad, nature and the passage of time.”
Like the founders of the land settlement project, the Amits started to grow vegetables for their family. “The scent and the taste have disappeared in modern industrial agriculture,” Gil says. “In America we learned about models of sustainable farming that have a diversified seed cycle. In Israel, because of the ethos of sophisticated agriculture and the high cost of land in the center of the country, there were hardly any places like that in the Sharon and Emek Hefer area. Today, more young farmers from the third generation are coming to us to learn and understand the model. But we are also just starting to learn what should be grown, and when, in the Sharon area. We’re getting to know the local soil, the climate and consumer tastes – it’s a process of trial and error.”
This charismatic couple, along with their team of young, ideologically committed workers of the land, today grow a selection of seasonal vegetables they sell directly to customers in the farm’s attractive store. In the past two years the store, which also stocks produce from other organic farmers, has become a bustling center in the region. “My parents’ generation still thinks we’re nuts,” Gil says. “But slowly they’re starting to understand – though most of them still don’t buy here.”
Picnic baskets for two at Farma Cultura, 180 shekels, order ahead for pickup Friday and Saturday. Telephone 09-7688487, farmacultura.co.il