Israel's Goji Growers Join the Global Superfood Craze

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Goji on the Fisher farm in Moshav Avigdor. After the rockets, a sizeable yield.Credit: Ilya Melnikov

In a small field belonging to the community of Avigdor in southern Israel, one of the healthiest types of fruit in the world – and the most expensive in the country, at 200 shekels (about $50) a kilo – is grown. This is the reddish goji, a berry that resembles a miserable-looking cherry tomato. It has been used in China for thousands of years for medicinal purposes.

Ever since it reached the West as part of the so-called superfood trend, the goji, also known as the wolfberry, has been touted by its admirers as “the most nutritious fruit in the world.” Its admirers include Madonna and Liz Hurley, who attribute to it an impressive array of benefits: It contains 22 vitamins and minerals, a host of amino acids, 500 times more vitamin C than in oranges, abundant iron and four times more antioxidants than blueberries. Such properties supposedly enhance longevity and bolster the immune system, eyesight and sex life, as well as reducing cellulitis and inducing a general sense of wellbeing.

Goji has been sold in Israel for years, imported in powder form from China, but its benefits are much more potent in the fresh fruit.

For decades, an abandoned thistle-covered dunam (quarter-acre) of land lay next to the Fisher family's home on Moshav Avigdor, a cooperative farming community. The property owned by Giora Fisher, whose parents established the moshav in 1950, also includes a cowshed. But his eldest son Yair turned out to be a vegan who doesn’t like dairy products, and his other son, Merom, was killed in Jenin during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, and Fisher realized that his future did not involve cows. He rented out the cowshed and sold his allocated quotas of milk. He currently makes a living as a Bible teacher.

After Yair Fisher finished studying biology at university, he felt an urge to return home and work the land, among other pursuits. One day he came upon some dried goji in the 'fridge, purchased by his mother Dorit at a health food store. He read on the label that it came from the Himalayas, and that it contained a host of vitamins and antioxidants. He excitedly tasted a few berries but was unimpressed.

Nevertheless, as someone researching the immune system and cancer, and working in a start-up company in a related field, the younger Fisher started investigating the benefits attributed to this fruit on the Internet. He was very impressed by what he found.

“I realized that no one was growing fresh goji in Israel,” says Fisher today. “I figured that if large-scale farmers aren’t doing it there must be a reason, but then I thought it worth taking a risk, just for fun.”

Yaif Fisher on the farm. 'I thought it worth taking a risk, just for fun.' Photo by Ilya Melnikov

In July 2013, the backyard of the home was cleared of its thistles and the first seedlings were planted. In the summer of 2014 Fisher was convinced he was on the verge of success, but the goji crop suffered from problems unrelated to botany or the environment: the eruption of Israel's Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip. Rockets started falling on the Fishers' small plot, of all places, destroying the small bushes. Since then, however, he's reached a seasonal yield of several hundreds of kilograms.

Burgeoning berry business

At the same time as the Avigdor venture was starting up, and unrelated to it, Nir Katan, a DJ specializing in New Vibe music from the '80s, started growing the crop on a small farm called Super Goji, near Herzliya, in the center of the country. Katan's farm has just started selling its berries, in health food stores.

“We obtained some seeds from the Himalayas in a roundabout way,” says Katan with pride, adding that it took four years from planting to the production of quality fruit that wasn’t sour. This included bringing in soil from southern Israel, which was more suitable than that of the Sharon coastal area.

Katan’s plot also covers about a dunam, and he says he won’t be able to keep up with the fierce demand. He plans to move next year to a 5-dunam plot at the foot of Mount Hermon, in the north. He doesn’t compete with the farm in Avigdor because, he notes, “the demand is insane – even if we combined forces we couldn’t keep up with it."

This year Katan plans to export the fruit to Russia and to start selling it for cosmetic purposes. As someone acquainted with city nightlife, he knows a few things that Fisher, the scientist, is unaware of.

“Goji goes very well with alcohol,” he suggests. “It makes you fly.”

Since Yair Fisher is also involved in scientific research, he says it’s important for him to emphasize that goji is not a recognized medication. The British Health Ministry has clarified that any studies of the attributes of the berries have usually been of very limited size or unsatisfactory in some empirical way, so that formal scientific results could not be ascertained. The British recommend continuing to eat a diverse range of vegetables rather than one specific fruit with ostensibly miraculous potency and qualities.

“I’m not a physician and I hesitate to give any medical advice related to goji,” says Fisher. “In non-conventional areas [of medicine] there are many charlatans. I can only say that the medical press mentions the exceptional medicinal and nutritional properties goji possesses. In addition to iron and vitamin C it contains special oligosaccharides with anti-inflammatory properties, which help people with diabetes.

"But," he cautions, "eating goji is not recommended for people taking diabetes medication or blood-thinning agents such as Coumadin.”

One reason goji hasn’t been studied more rigorously, Fisher says, is that pharmaceutical companies in the West have an interest in conducting orderly trials only on substances that can be put in pill form and sold commercially.

“They have no interest in marketing goji," he says. "Finding proof [of its therapeutic qualities] requires conducting experiments – for now there are only claims. There have been no controlled studies since there is no interest.”

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