Dreaming of an Agrotech Silicon Valley in the North

The big question is whether the Volcani Institute for Agricultural Research can be moved from the center of the country to the north.

Rami Sadeh

The Hula Valley region suffers from swampy soil and a shortage of water suitable for agriculture. Beneath the swampy soil, in the area of Kibbutz Shamir, there is a large reservoir of geothermal water, with a temperature of 47 degrees centigrade and a high mineral concentration. The 13 researchers at the Northern Agricultural Research and Development Center (MOP Tzafon.) most of them PhDs or doctoral candidates, are presently trying to find a use for the geothermal water.

One of the ideas being examined is a “jacuzzi for apricots” – watering the apricot trees with the hot water in midwinter, in order to arouse the tree from its hibernation and cause it to produce apricots towards the end of winter. It would enable the growers in the north to benefit from splendid isolation in world markets, as the only ones in the world able to offer the fruit so early in the year, and would be able to command high prices.

The jacuzzi for apricots is only one example of the type of research at the center, one of the country’s largest for applied agricultural research. The 13 researchers decided to move to the north, combining high-quality work with the quality of life in the north of the country. But are not all are satisfied with the move. Almost without exception they complain about the high cost of living in the north, due among other things to the great distances, the absence of cultural offerings, the poor quality of medical services and, mainly, a shortage of jobs for their partners.

“Moving to the north is like relocation,” says Prof. Doron Lavee, from the Department of Economics and Management at the Tel Hai Academic College, a partner in the Pareto Group and one of the architects of the strategic plan for developing the north. “There’s a big problem of good jobs for our partners. The move here is almost always at their expense, so many of the teachers at the college continue to live in the center of the country or in Haifa, and the college transports them here.”

Many people complain about the lack of good jobs in the north. About 20% of young people from the north move to the center due to a lack of suitable employment. This problem is also causing the north to lost its academic leverage. There are several good academic institutions in the north, the largest of which is Tel Hai, with 5,000 students.

But according to Dr. Lavee, about 90% of the college’s graduates abandon the north after graduation due to lack of suitable work. “Only 5% remain, so the north loses all its potential human capital. It happens less among Arab students, who of course are less likely to live in the center, and so the demographic balance is changing too – the percentage of Arabs will increase from 53% at present to 60% in 2030, due only to the migration of young Jews to the center.”

The paradox is that the young people are leaving despite the good quality of life in the north and the first signs of high-quality jobs. The research center and Tel Hai college are two examples, along with the Safed Academic College, the Kinneret Academic College and the Bar Ilan University Faculty of Medicine in Safed.

Near the Tel Hai college is one of the country’s outstanding research centers, Migal - the Galilee Research Institute, which employs about 200 researchers, 70 of them with doctorates, in varied fields of agrotech, biotech, environmental sciences and computer sciences. It’s amazing that there is such a large and varied research institute in such a distant geographical area, but the institute has been flourishing for 20 years and attracts researchers from other leading institutions.

With an annual budget of 18 million shekels, CEO Avishai Levy has great ambitions, including the development of a fully-fledged science park in cooperation with Tel Hai College and becoming an actual university at a later date..

Money but without planning

Aspirations in the north are sky-high, with an organizing idea behind them. The differences in altitude between the northern Golan Heights (1,200 meters above sea level) and the lowest points of the Hula and Jordan valleys (200 meters below sea level) allow for diverse agriculture – from northern European to tropical crops – within a relatively small area.

Agricultural variety has given rise to the idea of turning the north into a center of agricultural research and development, the Silicon Valley of agrotech and biotech, with a specialization in medicinal nutrition. That is the vision around which all the communities in the north are now consolidating.

“Ten years have passed since the Second Lebanon War,” says Lavee, “and after the wartime destruction the government mobilized to develop the north. They poured in a lot of money, but without planning and thought. As a result the north has progressed, but less than the center. The gaps have only increased.”

Now the north wants to present an organized program for growth, like that in the south, where the government transferred army bases to Ir Habahadim training base, and turned Be’er Sheva into an international cyber center.

The result is a strategic program, part of which was begun by Arye Dery as economy minister and is continuing under him in the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and the Galilee – and the other part of which is the initiative of the northern communities. It’s an ambitious program, officially costing 15 billion shekels, which everyone knows is unrealistic. Eitan Dangot, coordinator of the program in Dery’s ministry, is talking about an initial investment of 1 billion shekels, and 12-13 billion shekels over the next five years. It’s not clear whether the Finance Ministry has agreed to that.

The problem with the plan is that it is overly ambitious, and expensive – encompassing a university in the north, a center for innovation in Kiryat Shmona or Carmiel, a national food institute, and three technology hothouses ould therefore be the worst of both worlds turning the north into a center for clinical research into health and nutrition.

Employment zones would be developed by increasing tax benefits to the north, the airport in Mahanaim would be converted to international status, the four hospitals in the north would be upgraded into specialized hospitals – all to create a critical mass of agricultural-nutritional-biotech research.

Moving the Volcani

Another idea is the transfer of Israel’s Volcani Institute for Agricultural Research from its current location in the center of the country to the far north. Combining the advanced and varied agriculture of the north and the planned centers of advanced agricultural research with the venerable Volcani Institute could turn the north into the Silicon Valley of agrotech.

The problem is that moving the Volcani Institute to the north is complicated and dangerous. because it could lead to the institute’s abandonment by researchers and its ultimate disintegration.

“The cluster isn’t in the north,” says Prof. Eugene Kandel, head of the National Economic Council. “The cluster is in the center, in the connection between the Volcani Institute and the [Hebrew University] School of Agriculture in Rehovot, the Weizmann Institute of Science, Bar Ilan University and Tel Aviv University. If anything, we should increase the agricultural research ties among these institutions, certainly not sever the research and transfer it to the north. Even if it were a good idea, it would take the government 10 years, and by then all our agricultural research potential would be destroyed.”

Kandel is afraid that the pressure to transfer the Volcani Institute could lead to a compromise of moving it to the Jezreel Valley. That, he says, would be the worst of both worlds – damaging the status of the institute without creating the Silicon Valley of agrotech of which the northern communities are dreaming.

The battle over the Volcani Institute casts a shadow over the north’s plan. Dangot doesn’t reject any option, understanding the political and professional sensitive surrounding the future of Israel’s most important agricultural research institute. The dispute has already reached Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“The critical stage in the strategic program is not how many billions are invested, but the Volcani Institute, because it will leverage our agriculture research abilities,” says Giora Zaltz, head of the Upper Galilee Regional Council. “It’s what will enable us to offer high-quality employment and bring our children back home.”

The heads of the regional councils of the Golan Heights, Metula and Yesud Hamaale are devoting their time to trying to implement the strategic plan for the north. It’s an exciting vision that the northern communities want very much. The big question is whether the government will be able to harness this unusual energy to jump-start the country’s northern periphery, with or without the Volcani Institute.