Zebra Eggplant and Dinosaur Eggs, Fresh From Israel's Desert

Black tomatoes and squash on a stick are so 2013.

Agriculture in the Arava Desert in the south of Israel is not just squash on a stick, a cucumber shaped like a watermelon or black tomatoes for a niche market for European chefs.

Desertech, the annual agricultural expo for Arava agriculture, will be held Wednesday and Thursday  at the Central and Northern Arava R&D Yair Station in cooperation with the Interuniversity Institute in Eilat. The 23rd annual exhibition, also called Arava Open Day, the largest agricultural expo in Israel, will highlight agriculture under desert conditions, and include such exotic topics as growing corals and tropical fish in greenhouses, alongside the development of medicinal desert plants in an attempt to return home remedies to not just to the medicine cabinet but to the kitchen cabinet, too.

About 800 families live in seven Arava communities and 600 local farmers are involved in a variety of farming pursuits, including biological agriculture, fish farming, and tourist infrastructures. Some 40,000 dunams (10,000 acres) of cultivated desert land produce 150,000 tons of vegetables - mainly tomatoes and peppers, along with fruits such as dates and mangoes. This produce, mostly destined for export to Europe, the United States and Russia, constitutes about 60% of the total export volume of fresh vegetables from Israel.

“By any standard, farming shouldn’t be happening in the Arava. Saline soil, lack of water, and blazing sun are not the ideal conditions in which to farm. Yet, agriculture thrives where you’d least expect it,” noted the organizers. “Arava farmers take what nature has given them and, with hard work and creative solutions, have created a flourishing farming community.”

The species grown in the desert conditions are usually sold overseas with specific buyers ordering a large quantity in advance for the growing season, explained Boaz Horowitz, the director of the Yair Station, on Monday. The surplus produce is sold in Israeli markets, but not in large quantities.

One example is a small bitter melon (Momordica charantia), which is known as a home remedy for diabetes, Horowitz said. “We are trying to extract the active ingredient and improve it,” he said. Horowitz is constructing a pipeline of plants from the desert region as well as micro-algae in an attempt to produce pharmaceuticals from them. In addition to drugs, they can also be used in cosmetics and food supplements, he explained.

The distance and geographical isolation has created a zone with very few pests, while the heat, dryness and salinity help create unique flavors. Farmers from the Arava can provide fresh fruits and vegetables daily during the winter.

In recent years, the farmers have developed a number of vegetables with unique colors and forms, such as purple, golden and brown peppers; and polka dot tomatoes.

This year the emphasis is on quality and health, with such items as peppers and tomatoes with antioxidants and rich in vitamins; eggplants that absorb less oil; and vegetables that require less fertilizer. Other products on show this year are large and meaty spinach leaves, the size of palm branches - and rich in calcium, folic acid, vitamins, antioxidants and fiber.

Another innovation is a small cucumber shaped like a watermelon and grown in a hothouse, but with a unique aroma - and is good in salads and great for pickling.

Dinosaur eggs, a white melon, are another new idea. They are very sweet - and crunchy - and are intended for boutique hotels and restaurants. Baby artichokes, about half the size of the regular ones, are also new. They are in high demand in Italy. A very spicy version of the Mexican Habanero chili pepper is also under development.