The organic farm of Gill Shaham Amit and Nadav Amit is a celebration of the exotic. Alongside better-known plants, such as artichokes or eggplants, are garden rhubarb, white sapote and wasabi leaves. Then there’s the electric flower (Acmella oleracea): A small bite of it or smearing it on your tongue and lips provokes a strange sensation of tingling and then a loss of sensation. Gill and her partner Nadav, who started Farma Cultura nine years ago in Moshav Bnei Zion, have grown used to the reaction and respond with a knowing smile.
Among the plants run three barefoot girls, Rona, Niri and Goni, who are searching for wild strawberries to give us. “This isn’t a commercial crop,” Nadav says, explaining that wild strawberries have no shelf life and must be eaten right after picking. But their flavor is unique and refreshing, he promises, not like the ones you buy in the supermarket.
Both come from farming families – Gill grew up in Ein Yahav in the Arava Desert and Nadav is from a kibbutz in the Upper Galilee. Farma Cultura is on land that once belonged to her grandfather Asher Hand. “There was nothing here for 30 years,” says Gill. “It took us a year and a bit just to clean and clear the area. In contrast to other areas in Israel, perhaps, here in the Sharon when you don’t take care of land, everything grows wild.”
But Gill and Nadav aren’t the stereotypical farmer types. He doesn’t sport the conventional plaid shirt and mustache. Neither of them looks like hippie tree-huggers growing organic food for their own use. “We’re a bridge between hippies and yuppies,” Gill says.
They came relatively late in life to farming. They lived in Phoenix for a decade, working in sales. When they returned to Israel, they settled in Tel Aviv. Nadav studied political science and Gill studied interior design and worked in advertising. “We didn’t plan to become farmers, it wasn’t the plan,” she admits. But then something changed. Nadav describes a dream, common to many Israelis, of leaving the hubbub of city life and moving to a rural community.
But they took this dream one step further, devoting their lives to agriculture. “It was based on the relative advantages and on an egotistical desire to live such a life to its fullest,” Nadav says.
Still, he and Gill don’t see themselves only as farmers. They prefer the term entrepreneurs, viewing the farm as a kind of startup disrupting the world of conventional agriculture by engaging in seasonal agriculture, growing healthy products ecologically, using the principles of permaculture. Marketing is another element of the business. Gill often walks among the garden beds, photographing and posting to the farm’s Instagram account, which has 16,000 followers.
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“From the day the farm began as an idea and we started planning what it would look like, Gill understood that the world is moving to visuals and that we needed a good base that could be photographed, inviting people to be photographed there while providing content along with the visual effects,” says Nadav.
The tomato serves as a good example of the philosophy behind this farm. In Israel, we’ve grown used to having tomatoes throughout the year, thanks to imports and hothouses. Gill and Nadav explain that you won’t find tomatoes in their garden during the winter. “We believe it’s a change we can make, reminding people that the year has seasons,” says Gill.
“Israel should be consuming locally grown food. Until 2020, talk about nutritional security was a slogan. Now, after the coronavirus, we truly understand what this kind of security means and why it’s important, with all the difficulties and the economic debates. Farmers as a group are dying out, and we’re not eating food that’s grown close to our plates.”
The couple criticizes conventional agriculture, which damages the soil and does not produce the best harvests. “It’s not just food that’s grown far from our plates. In a deeper sense, the ability to ensure future generations [of crops], to develop new species and patents, is important,” says Nadav.
“What we’re doing may appear strange to the conventional farmer,” admits Gill. “There are weeds here, but we don’t see them as enemies. There is biological diversity here, and we’re producing a ‘polyculture,’ lots of species growing side by side with the aim of strengthening one another or attracting ‘enemies.’ We’ll create a pool in winter in order to attract these pests. There’s a whole amusement park of creatures here.”
Nowhere on the farm can you find a patch exclusively of eggplants, strawberries or artichokes, just a few rows of each of them. “We have a snake as a tenant here,” says Nadav. “It’s a black snake, After a while I learned that he eats mice and keeps vipers away. When you overcome your instinct to hate something, you come to understand that it’s here to help.”
In any given season, the farm’s 10 dunams (2.5 acres) play host to 30-40 crops, some of them unusual, like flax and nigella, and others common, such as lettuce. “We don’t operate according to the usual format of a business with customers. As much as it may sound like a cliche, we grow what the customers want,” says Gill. “Our customers get a message if there’s something that we’re growing we know they like. We even know what vegetables our customers’ children like. That has made the relations between us a healthy one.”
Farma Cultura also has a roadside store. But there’s no restaurant there; you can’t even enjoy a relaxing cup of coffee in a rural setting. But it is replete with prudence and organic products, ranging from carrots grown on the farm to produce raised by others nearby as well as a smattering of complementary products, such as environmentally friendly metal straws and handmade soaps.
Visits that include a 40-minute tour and a talk about the farm’s philosophy and unique plants can be arranged in advance. You can order a picnic basket, too. “But we’re not a cafe, stresses Gill. “Our business model was from the start more modest than that and more local. But as we see it, it can and should be a model for renewing rural life all over.”
Says Nadav: “We give people a place to take part and even if it’s only for a couple of hours, a way to slow down and connect in various ways to this Jewish-Israeli culture. We explain all of this in our tours and show people how we are people, that we’re a working community, that there’s always been a very fundamental, natural and clear connection between modern agriculture and Jewish history. But I want to depart from traditional perceptions … and create a model more relevant for 2021.”
Gill is hoping that other young people will follow them. “Our wish is that for almost everyone who comes here it will inspire them to farm, too. We want more young couples to take over grandpa’s farm and produce good, fresh and clean vegetables for the neighborhood.”
Nadav says prospective farmers don’t have to risk buying land to experiment with a new life. “There are abandoned properties all over the country and the rent you get for farmland is a joke,” he says. More than that: “There are more than 15 kibbutzim with abandoned farmland, and the kibbutzim have the knowledge of how to start renewing a diverse, polycultural agriculture in rural areas.”
But you can make money at it?
Gill: “The beauty of polyculture and permaculture is there no start or end to the seasons. While my brothers are managing their farms according to the season, I have things to be planted and harvested all the time.”
Nadav: “We began growing artichokes for food and then discovered that we can sell the flowers for four or five times the price. We stopped selling them for food and began to sell it for decoration. That kind of thing you can only do with our model. As a conventional farmer, you’ve signed a contract [to sell your crops] at the start of the season.”
The farm stopped making deliveries about four months before the pandemic, but Gill and Nadav don’t regret the move. “The competition was impossible. During the third lockdown, we saw how sophisticated companies and other businesses became in terms of the delivery experience and we said, ‘Wow, small businesses like us can’t match it,’” says Gill. Some customers actually sent taxis to pick up their orders during the lockdowns.
They sound like pretty well-off customers?
“We have everything and anything, a wide range of products and of customers. Anyone who thinks it’s important to get the best Israeli produce has to pay accordingly,” says Gill, adding that those who can’t afford a taxi delivery can come to the store.
“We have a lot of values that are a lot more philosophical – slow food versus fast food, a slow life and the connection between emotional health and a green, natural environment. As people, as living creatures, we need to walk amid nature and sometimes walk barefoot, to expose our children to different tastes and to be part of the shopping culture. We try to teach people how to buy vegetables, how to be a smarter consumer. Even if you’re not a corporate vice president, you can still buy vegetables, soap and take a class at Farma Cultura. It’s all a matter of priorities,” says Gill.
Nadav said the government could square the circle of health, environment and cost, if it wanted to. “When you look at what we have in Israel – the geographical diversity, the climate, the agricultural knowledge, the fact that we are an island country, you say to yourself, “Lord of the universe, it’s not just that we could be the greenest country but the country with the healthiest food.’ All we need is a serious agriculture minister or serious agricultural policies,” he asserts.
He also blames middlemen for distorting the market, but in the end thinks his prices are justified. “I don’t think our prices are high for what you get,” Nadav says.
And what is the customer getting?
“Cleaner, tastier tomatoes that are more reliable and less polluting. And no less important than this – you’re neighbor is earning a living from it.”
But I don’t understand organic agriculture. I go to the supermarket, I find beautiful tomatoes and I buy them.
Gill: “What kind of relationship do you have with your food?”
She doesn’t take the reporter’s answer of “not much” lying down. It’s a matter of developing that relationship, she says. “I ask people to try to grow what food they can in Tel Aviv themselves. When you start to do that and watch the process – and that’s something that happened in 2020, when people planted whatever they could, like avocados and sweet potatoes – you become aware.
“Even if you live in Tel Aviv, you can call other farms that do bring food to your door. They’ll send you a box of seasonal produce they’ve grown themselves or collected from other farmers – preferably organic – and that will be the start. ... I promise you’ll begin to have a dialogue with your food in a way you’ve never known.”