For These Farmers, Eggplant Is Far More Than Just an Emoji

Two 'seed savers' at an Israeli farm are rescuing and growing heirloom vegetables – enabling chefs and consumers to enjoy flavors long forgotten by commercial agriculture

A selection of heirloom vegetables grown on ImHaAdama farm, near Hadera, central Israel.
Dan Perez

It’s early morning on the ImHaAdama farm in Hasharon Park, near Hadera, the last green island in an area increasingly turning into a collection of residential towers.

A small delegation includes two farmers, a chef, three guard dogs and a goat that somehow feels an inseparable part of the group. After morning coffee, they head out to the furrows of the vegetable garden. Those on four legs are disappointed at not being allowed to pass through the gate in the fence enclosing the cultivated field.

Those on two legs – the two farmers and seed savers, Yael Horowitz and Bar Tenennbaum, plus chef Barak Aharoni of the Alena Restaurant in Tel Aviv – set out to sample various strains of seasonal vegetables.

At this time of year, the ImHaAdama (WithEarth) organic and ecological farm produces only summer crops, including okra, black-eyed peas, various types of gourds and zucchini, tomatoes and hot peppers.

At first, the conversation dwells on the five sorts of eggplant that are now ready for picking – Baladi, Shami, Rosa Bianca, finger eggplants and white eggplants – and their attributes and values to growers and chefs. Aharoni, who for the past few months has been purchasing fresh seasonal produce for his restaurant from the farm, is choosing various types of eggplants for culinary trials.

A dish from the Alena Restaurant in Tel Aviv, which uses seasonal vegetables from the ImHaAdama farm.
Dan Perez

They visit the eggplants, zucchinis and different types of faqous (a cousin of the cucumber). Tenennbaum confesses that “it’s only with the ordinary cucumbers that we were utterly defeated this year.” Then they move on to nine different strains of tomatoes.

“What did you think of the Marmande tomatoes you got last week?” Horowitz asks Aharoni. This is a veteran heirloom species hardly ever grown in Israel in commercial quantities today. From the conversation arise not only forgotten flavors but also people, places and stories about the history of settlement in pre-state Israel. The Marmande, a beefsteak strain cultivated in France, was apparently brought to the country by a farmer and seed dealer who in 1924 opened trading houses for seeds in Haifa and Tel Aviv.

The French Marmande tomato was grown by pioneering locals, including Hanka Lazarson of Kibbutz Beit Alfa, who cultivated new strains that dominated the fields and markets of the country for many years.

What all these species have in common, like all the vegetables grown here, is that all are open-pollinated heirloom species. These are species in which the pollination process occurs naturally, producing seeds that can be preserved by the farmer from one season to the next and from one year to the next.

In contrast, in hybrid species the seeds are produced by means of controlled hybridization; modern farmers must buy them every season from seed companies. The vegetables cultivated by ImHaAdama farm include local heirloom species that have been grown in the region for centuries or even millennia. Others were brought here in the early- or mid-20th century by Jews arriving from various communities around the world; and there are also outstanding heirloom strains from neighboring countries that share similar climate and soil conditions.

Seeds laid out for drying, being preserved for the next season.
Dan Perez

Horowitz and Tenennbaum were both born in Ramat Gan in 1989. “We grew up in adjacent neighborhoods and met in high school,” says Horowitz. Horowitz’s father, Yehezkel Stier, was an architect, but he dreamed of living on the land. “As a little girl I thought that my father, who specialized in building wooden buildings, hated people. But he did not hate people; he only preferred the land to spending time with people.” In 2003, Stier bought 16 dunams (4 acres) of land from one of the founding families of Hadera and established his farm. “He passed away in 2013 after a tough battle with cancer,” says Horowitz. “My sister and I had looked after him. When he died, we didn’t know how to cope, and we stopped working the land. We couldn’t bear seeing this place that he loved so much.”

Vision is a big word

Last year, Horowitz and her partner decided to go back and work the land left to her by her father. “Last February, we began sprouting seeds here, and we began planting in February. Vision may be a big word, but our dream is to raise high-quality organic vegetables and do it all by ourselves: Not to buy seeds from seed companies or seedlings from the nurseries, but to produce the seeds by ourselves, sprout them, raise the vegetables and sell them directly to consumers without middleman costs. We are learning as we go along. This is our first year. We still haven’t completed a full cycle of seeds on the land, and there have been a lot of mistakes made along the way.

“Another objective is to set up a platform through which it will be possible to learn the subject of seeds. There aren’t a lot of places today where you can learn about seed-saving and small-scale agriculture. We aren’t naive. We know that the model of small-scale agriculture has entirely collapsed, in Israel and all over the world, and the workshops, lectures and educational activity are vital to the economic model, in order to sustain the business, and to create a supportive community.”

Before the first season, when they asked themselves how they would acquire a large quantity of seeds, the couple went to Harel Weiss, founder of Nativity Seeds. Weiss, a zealot on the subject who established an independent seed bank of heirloom seeds, tried at first to grow vegetables for seeds by himself. Now he works with four small farming operations in the Jezreel Valley and the Sharon region, which he supplies with seeds for growing vegetables; they repay him with vegetables for seed saving.

A dish from the Alena Restaurant in Tel Aviv, which uses seasonal vegetables from the ImHaAdama farm.
Dan Perez

“I dictate the growing conditions needed to preserve the purity of the species. But the aim is to propagate them before they disappear from the world,” he says. “It is estimated that nearly 90 percent of the strains of vegetables and fruits have vanished in the past century. In the United States and Europe, the process began in the 1930s, with large farms taking the place of small ones and hybrid seeds replacing open strains for the benefit of a uniform and industrialized agriculture. In Israel, this process accelerated in the ’70s and ’80s.”

Weiss’ seed bank now includes hundreds of heirloom seeds. Through his seed stall in the Tel Aviv port market, he also sells heirloom vegetables from the small farming operations with which he works. Subject to the seasons of the year, consumers can reacquaint themselves with the forgotten flavors of Beit Alfa and Samson cucumbers; the unfamiliar taste of a spotted Italian faqous cucumber; or the sweet fragrance of an Ananas melon.

Weiss is not the only one in the field, of course. In the past two years, the Israel Plant Gene Bank at the Volcani Institute began to conduct interesting studies in the field of heirloom seeds, based on collections deposited in the bank by researchers who gathered seeds in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. “The intention is to eventually open up the seeds to the public at large,” says the gene bank director, Dr. Einav Mayzlish Gati. “But at this stage there are no seeds for distribution, because the seeds are old. We’re talking about seeds that have not been propagated and have not been germinated in nearly 40 years – and, for now, they require a professional to grow them.”