Israel’s First Urban Farm Takes Root in Be'er Sheva

Earth's Promise, which plants community gardens across the country, is transforming neglected city lands into food, gardens and farms.

Eliyahu Hershkovitz

BE’ER SHEVA – A young Ethiopian girl taps Adam Ganson on the shoulder and asks if she can help out in the fields. Before he has a chance to respond, she’s already flying off in the direction of the other volunteers dutifully tending the nearby rows of cabbage, celery, broccoli and cauliflower.

It’s a tiny farm, to be sure, situated on the outskirts of an immigrant absorption center, with a strip mall just across the busy road and a gas station at its edge. But that doesn’t detract from the significance of this unassuming little place: The barely 1.5-acre plot of land is Israel’s first and only commercial urban farm.

Known as “Totzeret Gimel” (“Gimel Produce”), this brand new farm is named after the adjacent “Gimel” neighborhood, one of Be’er Sheva’s most neglected. The first seedlings were planted on the site a few months ago to mark the holiday of Tu Bishvat, the Israeli equivalent of Arbor Day, and a little more than a month ago, Totzeret Gimel began selling its harvest to a handful of local restaurants, fresh produce vendors and residents of the nearby neighborhood.

Ganson, a new immigrant from the United States, is the driving force behind the initiative. Together with his Israeli-born wife, Moran Slakmon, he is co-director of Earth’s Promise, an Israeli non-profit that promotes sustainability.

In recent years, Earth’s Promise has planted 10 community gardens in Israel, five of them in Be’er Sheva, but this is the first set up explicitly for the purpose of turning a profit. “Other community gardens in Israel, including those we’ve planted, have either served as educational centers or as a way to provide nearby immigrant families, especially Ethiopians, with something productive to do that makes use of their skills,” says Ganson.

Not that he expects to become rich from the venture. To date, the farm has sold about 100 kilograms (220 pounds) worth of its organic produce – a tiny amount, by any standard – and can’t possibly compete, as Ganson acknowledges, with the cutthroat prices of the nearby discount supermarket chains. “Where we eventually see a possibility of making money is by bringing groups here and turning it into a tourist attraction,” he says.

But even then, the proceeds won’t be going into anyone’s pockets. “Any money we make from this, we’ve committed to putting back into the project, either by investing in training or in community events,” says Ganson.

On a gate at the entrance to Totzeret Gimel, a handwritten sign advertises the items on sale this particular day. The list includes basil for 5 shekels a bunch, lettuce for 5 shekels a head, cabbage for NIS 2 a kilogram, and beets for 3 shekels a kilogram. An elderly man dragging a wagon behind him enters the grounds and begins chatting with some of the field hands. “That’s Eliyahu,” Ganson points him out. “He lives nearby and is our most loyal customer. You can find him here every day stocking up.”

Israel’s kibbutzim and moshavim, collective farms located largely in rural areas, have long served as the country’s breadbasket. In recent years, however, urban farming has received a push from local environmentalists, though by no means does it threaten the country’s big crop producers and distributors. The pioneer of Israel’s urban farming movement was Naomi Tsur, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, who set up the country’s first community gardens in the capital.

The inspiration for the first such commercial venture in the country, says Ganson, came from similar projects launched in other cities around the world, particularly models developed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Havana, Cuba. “The whole idea behind this, what you might call our mission statement, is transforming neglected urban land into food, gardens and farms,” he notes.

The plot where Totzeret Gimel sits today used to be a dump, and before it could be cultivated, 70 tons of construction waste had to be removed. The project required an initial investment of 100,000 shekels, most of the money put up by the Jewish National Fund. Much of the work on the farm is done by volunteers, including local residents with a passion for gardening and high school students fulfilling their community service requirements.

Setting up a small farm comes with its own unique set of challenges, as Ganson has learned. “We couldn’t get seedlings because the companies that sell them won’t deliver fewer than 2 million, and we couldn’t use more than 10,000,” he recounts. “So we had to take seeds and sprout them on our own.” This sprouting is done in two little tents located on the premises as well as in a greenhouse made available by a nearby school. All the seeds for the farm were donated to the project, as was the irrigation equipment. Another major saving was made possible by the city, which provided Totzeret Gimel with the land it sits on free of charge for five years, waiving municipal taxes as well for the entire period.

The desert climate of Be’er Sheva is certainly not ideal for a fledgling agricultural venture, acknowledges Ganson. But the Negev capital does have one thing going in its favor: lots of available unused land – in fact, more than any other municipality in Israel.

Ganson hopes to interest local residents in another commercial venture connected to the farm. “I’m trying to scout out people with special culinary talents,” he says, “people who know, for example, how to pickle a particular type of vegetable. What I’d eventually like to do is provide them with the vegetables and have them make something out of them that we can then sell and split the profits.”

A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, Ganson studied English and Jewish Studies at Indiana University before moving east to complete his master’s degree in environmental law at the University of Vermont. He immigrated to Israel three years ago. Sustainability may be a cause that resonates strongly in Vermont, a state known for its progressive-minded population, but has Ganson been able infect the locals in this down-and-out neighborhood of Be’er Sheva, primarily immigrants from the rural villages of Ethiopia, with his idealism? “They may not understand the term sustainability to the full extent,” he responds, “but even if these big ideas aren’t ingrained in them, I like to think we’re giving them an opportunity to get outside, to plant a seed and watch it grow. And that’s a positive thing in a place like this.”

Eliyahu Hershkovitz