Not Just Arms Sales

India’s Modi Launches Israel Trip by Taking in Startup Nation’s Flower Tech

Prime minister’s historic visit begins with a showcase of Israel's low-profile flower industry that has made the desert bloom in pink and white

India's prime minister receives flowers while on a visit in Israel
Twitter, Indian PM Office

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Israel Tuesday hoping to keep the cooperation going after the countries’ $2 billion defense deal, but before visiting Yad Vashem or speaking with Israeli leaders or arms dealers, Modi headed for ... a flower nursery.

The Startup Nation, more known for its blossoming high-tech and weapons industries than blossoms, is actually among the world’s top-10 flower exporters, taking advantage of its warm winters.

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“What took so long for them to blossom?” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Modi at the airport, referring to the two countries’ ties. Modi, for his part, praised Israel for “converting challenges into opportunities” and noted the potential of Israeli-Indian ties. “We want to make business,” Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel added.

In the days before the visit, flower growers told Haaretz how the industry works.  

"In Israel, we deal in summer flowers, and when they stop growing flowers in Europe, that’s when we start,” said Yakov Yonash, whose Yonash Farms in the desert south exports to Europe and Russia. “When the Dutch harvest ends at the end of the summer, we begin. We promise continuity so there are flowers all year round.”

On Tuesday, Modi became the first sitting Indian prime minister to visit Israel. His first stop on his three-day visit, the Danziger flower farm at Moshav Mishmar Hashiva near Tel Aviv, is a good example of Israel’s flower power.

Flowers in the Eshkol region in the south.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“Danziger is the high-tech of the high-tech of Israeli floriculture,” Ariel told Haaretz. “They have over 60 years of experience growing flowers,” said Ariel, who met with Modi in India last year.

As Yonash noted, “Danziger is on par with the best greenhouses and nurseries around the world.” Indeed, Danziger is a classic Israeli tale of how a small farm set up by Jewish immigrants in the 1950s turned into an agriculture-tech power — in this case using genetic engineering.

The Danzigers have been exporting flowers since the ‘70s, but their breakthrough came when Micha Danziger, the son of the founder Ernst Danziger, managed to make gypsophila — commonly known as baby’s-breath — bloom in the winter. Today the company only exports young plants and bulbs. With a staff of 200 around the globe and an R&D team that includes agronomists and geneticists, Danziger is more tech than teva — the Hebrew word for nature.

At the Danziger farm, Modi was due to observe a thermal camera that watches over orchards, and pocket-size technology that checks fruit’s ripeness. Still, as far as horticulture is concerned, Modi will have to pivot quickly from flowers to food, marked by his signing of deals with two Israeli firms in the agricultural biotech industry.

“He has 1.3 billion mouths to feed,” Ariel said. “The flowers are just the showcase.”

Israel may be a top-10 exporter, but it’s still a shrinking industry whose two main markets are the Netherlands and the home market. Last year, Israel grew 685 million shekels ($196 million) worth of flowers.

“The market for exporting flowers has weakened because of the increased price of manpower in Israel, tariffs, and the drop in the value of the euro,” said the head of the Israel Flower Growers Association, Abraham Daniel. “In the ‘90s we had over 4,000 flower growers, we exported over a billion flowers in 1997. Today we’re barely 400, maybe 350 that live exclusively off growing flowers.”

Meanwhile, the strong shekel against the sagging ruble makes Israeli products more expensive in Russia.

As Yonash, the desert florist, put it about the overall business, “It’s expensive, you have to keep the flowers refrigerated from the moment they come off the stem. First they’re immersed in ice water, then packaged in special containers, then shipped to the Netherlands as frozen cargo. And from there they’re distributed across Europe.”

As exports grew less lucrative, Israel companies catered more to the local market. A surge in Russian immigration to Israel helped Israeli exporters set their sights on the Russian market, which now accounts for about 15 percent of Israel’s flower exports.

Around the world lisianthus flowers became the rage at the expense of roses, and it turns out that Russians both in Israel and abroad love the lisianthus, especially the pink and white varieties, Yonash says.

Despite receiving the honor of opening Modi’s visit, Israel seems less intent on showcasing its flowers and more its growers’ use of technology to defend its top-10 position.

“As exporting flowers become harder, Danziger started exporting young plants, working directly with dozens of nations. They develop flowers and make flowers better — they don’t market the flowers directly themselves,” said Ariel, the agriculture minister. “We want to develop something that will have a global impact. They’re doing amazing things there it’s also close to the airport and the schedule is tight.”

So Modi will observe Israel’s flower tech, but will his country wind up importing flowers from Israel? Daniel, the head of the flower grower’s association, doesn’t think so.

“Danziger is great for the optics, he has an amazing operation going there,” Daniel said. “It’s very sophisticated stuff he built with his own two hands over decades. It’s great if you want to show them how smart we Israelis are. But exporting flowers to India? No way.”