Israeli Farmers Fear 'A Death Blow' by Proposed Import Reform: 'Blame the Tycoons'

In a major backlash over the government's plan that would eliminate customs duties on produce, the farmers claim it would boost profits for big food retailers at their own expense

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A protest by farmers in the Negev on Thursday.
A protest by farmers in the Negev on Thursday.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Oren Korin has been growing date palms in the Arava region for the last ten years. He and his wife, along with their three children, manage 35 dunams (8.6 acres) of dates, which is their main source of income. He sells his best dates for 25 shekels ($7.80) a kilo, but they sell in supermarkets for 45 to 50 shekels.

“It’s easier to put the blame on the farmers than a few tycoons, which is why the proposed reform harms us,” he says. “We don’t get rich off farming; we make a dignified living.”

Korin was referring to a reform announced last month by Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Agriculture Minister Oded Forer, cancelling import duties on fruit, vegetables and eggs.

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Korin, who is the head of the agriculture committee at the Central Arava Regional Council in the south, believes that a plan that fails to address middlemen's fees would only harm the farmers. While major food retailers might lower their prices on produce, they won’t forgo the large profits that they currently enjoy, he says.

“Ultimately, someone has to go to the retail chains and tell them that there is no problem with their making a profit. No one works for free, but instead of making 400 percent on each product, they can make a profit of 40, 50 or 100 percent.”

Oren Korin, a date farmer in the Arava region of the south.Credit: Alex Levac

Korin warns that Israeli agriculture will not be able to compete with the price of produce from countries such as Jordan, Turkey and Egypt. Those countries produce fruit and vegetables at lower prices, but it's of lower quality and is subject to less stringent quality control than in Israel, he insists.

“The big chains won’t pay us what they pay people in Jordan since we can’t sustain such low prices. We pay a lot more for water and labor, which is not regulated in other countries as it is here. If you create a reform that introduces the global market to the local one without creating the conditions that enable us to compete, agriculture here will collapse,” he says.

Hundreds of farmers gathered at major road intersections after the plan was announced to protest the proposed reform. The Finance Ministry is presenting the move as a step that will reduce prices for consumers while addressing farmers’ concerns, but the farmers claim that it will leave a trail of scorched earth of thousands of failing farms. If the reform passes, in 20 years, today's green fields of crops around the country will be abandoned and withered, they predict.

Poultry farmers such as Eliezer Biton of Avivim, a moshav collective farm community on the Lebanese border, are projected to suffer the brunt of the changes, although Biton himself preferred to stay on his farm rather than join in the protests.

An extreme heat wave is predicted this week, and in an effort at salvaging the meager income that he expects, at least in the short term, he has been hard at work to cool his henhouses to fend off massive deaths among his chickens.

“The agriculture minister has been in office for barely a month, but he's teaching us what farming is, what the earth smells like? Over the past four years, there have been a number of [agriculture] ministers and not one of them represented me or protected me and said 'I will rehabilitate agriculture.' On the contrary,” Biton lamented.

"If the reform is carried out, it will be our ruin. The market will be flooded with supply, driving prices down, and we'll be forced to close our henhouses,” says Biton, who has monthly revenues of about 7,000 to 8,000 shekels.

A woman shops for vegetables at a market in Tel AvivCredit: Baz Ratner

Like Biton, Esther Chelouche, from Moshav Zarit, which is also on the Lebanese border, has for decades been making a living from the henhouse that she owns. “The price of feed has soared and the cost of operating a henhouse has gone up," says her daughter Liat Cohen, who added that her mother "continues to work at her age since she is self-employed and has no pension.”

Amit Yifrach, the secretary general of the moshav movement, is urging the government not to make hasty decisions. “We proposed a controlled reduction of tariffs that would monitor harm to specific items at any given moment, but the ministers of finance and agriculture are against this idea,” he said.

Without adequate support for farmers, he added, their profits will be eroded. “If they can’t make a living, they’ll simply stop growing agricultural produce.”

The power will shift to players such as the major food retailers, which will have absolute control of the market, he warned. "In the long run, importers will get even richer, while the Israeli consumer gets hurt. There will be no high-quality produce, no quality control, and in the absence of competition from Israeli produce, prices will increase," he said.

The Agriculture Ministry said in response for this article that “the reform will be carried out because it is necessary and will change the vegetable and fruit market in a way that addresses the needs of two links in the chain that need bolstering – farmers and consumers. The reform is expected to save Israeli consumers 2.7 billion shekels, namely, 840 shekels per family.”

For its part, the Finance Ministry said in part that the farmers' situation will improve. Farmers will receive direct support and pay less for fertilizer, pesticides and other supplies. Farmers will also benefit from investment in research and innovation. Over the past 20 years, the price of fruit has more than doubled and the price of vegetables has risen by more than 80 percent while consumption has dropped, the ministry noted.

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