The big city and its jobs, culture and entertainment is a lure for the great majoirty of Israelis growing up in the periphery, but there are a few brave souls who move in the opposite direction.
Take journalist Nativ Nahmani. About six months ago, he contacted Kibbutz Nirim in the western Negev seeking a job. They didn’t know what to do with him, finding his presence more amusing than helpful, he recalls.
“They said ‘come let’s see the journalist get on a tractor and quit after a week,’” says Nahmani, who had been a crime reporter for Yedioth Aharonoth’s Tel Aviv weekly and previously worked at the Walla news website and the Maariv daily.
“People who didn’t know me well gave me two weeks to quit and those who knew me said, ‘He will get over it in two months,’ but I’m still here in the meantime and enjoying every moment.”
Nahmani is among the most recent of newcomers to agrarian life, with whom TheMarker spoke. All had been living in urban areas and had senior positions in their fields – high tech, marketing and communications. The agricultural sector has gotten a bad reputation in recent years, particularly the farmers’ battles with the government against imports and their confrontations with the supermarket chains.
But there appears to be something that farming has to offer – the connection to the land and physical labor that appeals as a refuge to many seeking something different from the bourgeois existence to which they are accustomed.
Although in some respects the newcomers’ lifestyles are no less demanding than what they left behind, and in some instances, they have less financial security now, you won’t hear a word of regret from them. They may have traded a company car for a tractor, but they may have also traded a hurried lunch break for wildflower-picking.
Doesn’t miss the office
Until four years ago, 36-year-old Dotan Goshen was the vice president for sales at a successful high-tech firm specializing in monitoring and control systems. But he doesn’t miss his old office in Tel Aviv’s Ramat Hahayal business park now that he is ensconced at an organic farm he set up at Kibbutz Hama’apil northeast of Netanya.
And Goshen admits that even when he was with the company, he didn’t see much of the office.
“I was traveling to clients by car all over the country. I was racking up 60,000 kilometers a year among companies and suppliers,” he says.
Goshen worked for his employer since he was a student of industrial engineering and management at Shenkar College – from the time the high-tech firm was founded. But it was a call that he got after moving up the career ladder for six years that changed everything.
“One evening, my wife and I along with our little daughter visited Kibbutz Hama’apil, at the site where a new neighborhood would be built and where were are living today. Then it was just fields. At 7:30 P.M., I got a call from my boss. He heard my daughter, who was then a year old, in the background, and understood that I was with her, and he paid no attention and just continued talking to me about work.”
The incident might have been something that Goshen would have considered tolerable if it hadn’t been for an e-mail that followed a few hours later. “That same night, I received an email from my boss criticizing me: ‘This is a difficult period. It is unacceptable that at 7:30 P.M., you are already home. You need to work 14 hours a day at a time like this.’”
The next morning, Goshen went to the office and informed his boss that he was leaving, but the company refused to let go of him and he stayed for another three years.
He used the time to lay the groundwork for what he wanted to do next by paying visits to farms and learning about the type of farming the community did. In contrast with industrial agriculture, the concept involves making the farmer the personal supplier of a group of individual customers who order vegetables from the same farm on a regular basis.
One December he announced that he would be leaving the following February. The company, he says, saw to it, “and not without threatening,” that he would not touch his new business venture until he left. At that point, he was 32 and had two children with a third on the way.
He leased four dunams of land (an acre) at Kibbutz Hama’apil. In addition to beginning to work the land, he said he began recruiting customers “even before I had a vegetable in my hand. He also began sending out newsletters to potential customers advising them what he had planted, what had sprouted and where he was running into problems – with pictures included."
Other than the encouragement that he got from his wife, very few people told him he was doing the right thing. People, he says, are very fearful of making a change like that. Even longtime farmers told him he was crazy and that his interest would fade.
But he like his days. “You finish working in the fields at 1:30 P.M., so when they need someone at the kindergartens or at school, they call me. I’m home for dinner every night, and for showers and bedtime stories too. After that, there’s still a little work on the computer, a little customer service, a little marketing, but mostly it’s by word of mouth.”
Goshen says it took him two years to stem initial losses and even now that the business is profitable enough, he plows most of the profits back into the business. But he says the difference is that whatever he may now be investing, he owns the business, so the investment will benefit his family and employees.
Having it all at 24
The high-tech bubble, which reached its peak in 2000, attracted the best brains one could have hoped for. Everyone wanted to get in on the action and the high salaries. One of them was 39-year-old Avivit Berkovich.
“I finished high school and the army and went to study what at the time was most popular – information systems. It really interested me,“ she says. “I understood that I was headed for a profession that would give me a high standard of living. I got a bachelor’s and master’s at the Technion. I graduated with honors, and they snapped me up.”
Over the next 15 years, Berkovich got married, had three children and worked at companies like Elbit Systems, Intel, IBM, eBay and at a startup that was ultimately sold for a lot of money. The pay, she says, was amazing from the first day, but she also says she realized it was crazy.
“It excited me at the time, because I understood that at 24, I had achieved what my parents didn’t attain until they were 60, but money gives you a momentary high and then it passes, because on a day-to-day basis, you don’t feel the salary,” she says of those years.
Then one Saturday she joined a group that went out of the country to harvest food. She also learned how to pick edible wild plants.
“It was mind-blowing, because all of a sudden, I realized that you could get into nature and not just look at a pretty place and come home or wade in a spring and come home,” Berkovich recalls.
She researched the matter in depth, joined more outings and developed an interest in botany. But the big change came three years ago over Sukkot, when she was working as a team leader at eBay, as a research director in addition to being the mother of three small children, aged five to 10.
Although Berkovich’s employer offered her a raise and the option of working from home part of the week, she was already at the point where she took more of an interest in the Mediterranean buckthorn and the saltbush plant than any cash bonus that might be offered.
Now she leads crop harvesting tours and workshops for anyone who might be interested.
The equipment participants are asked to bring with them on the tours are an indication of her unique approach: a sharp knife, silverware, a plastic box for storing berries, a cutting board and a basket. And somehow she manages to get even the most cynical of participants excited over mint leaves.
Most weeks she does three tours. “I’m working but really I’m not working, because I enjoy every minute,” she remarks.
She acknowledges that her career shift wasn’t easy.
“But I understood that if I wanted my children to have a happy and significant life, I needed to show them how. I can’t just talk to them about it,” Berkovich says.
Nahmani, the journalist, who moved to the south three and a half years ago, became a full-time farmer just three months ago.
He asked to conduct our interview in what he called his “office,” under a big oak tree, on a piece of land belonging to Kibbutz Nirim and overlooking a nature reserve that he has fallen in love with. He takes a mat out of his car, but it takes some adjustment for him to be the person being interviewed and not the interviewer.
In talking about his career, he cites a life-changing event he had experienced as a journalist. He was assigned to cover the terrorist attack in 2011 at the home of the Fogel family in the West Bank settlement of Itamar, in which five family members, the parents and three children, were killed.
“We were there on the night of the murders and we saw a large group of young people from the community heading toward groves of trees in a nearby Arab village,” he recalls.
“I drove into the groves along with a photographer and at some point, some of the young people opened the door of my car, pulled me out of the car and pushed me up against it, while screaming. As a reporter, I was automatically seen by them as left-wing and they were afraid that I would turn them in. I felt physically threatened. There were a lot of them. I had no chance. In the end, I started yelling and jumping back on top of them in return. There were a few seconds of shock that I took advantage of to get back to my car and escape.”
Shaken by the experience
Shaken by the experience, Nahmani asked for take time off from work to recuperate. He describes his mental state at the time as poor.
“Within a day or two, things start to calm down. You develop very high-level repressive defense mechanisms, but over time, the scenes and the feelings resurface,” he says.
He decided that he needed to make a change. It took two years, but in 2013, he and his wife moved to a moshav in the western Negev near Sderot. He got a job in Be’er Sheva in public relations, but he realized that living in the countryside and working in the countryside were two different things.
He said he saw a guy leaving his house on a bicycle and then getting on a tractor. Nahmani wanted that kind of lifestyle for himself, too. He got his job at Kibbutz Nirim, spent three months learning how to drive a tractor which he now drives for a living.
He says his work day begins at 4:30 or 5 A.M.
“You get your assignment the evening before. It could be going through peanuts fields or plowing the earth before seeding.”
Nahmani says he is learning the secrets of the trade on the job.
“I want to know as much about it as possible.”
And, despite all of the skeptics’ predictions, he’s still on that tractor.