'Bio-tut' and Other Reasons Israeli Strawberry Fields Are Getting Better, Forever

Strawberries have come a long way from their origins in the Americas and their early cultivation in France. Local varieties are tastier and healthier than ever.

Dr. Nir Dai of the Volcani Center’s Agricultural Research Organization. A passion for strawberries.
Maya Ben-Nissan

The Tal Farm is like a last remnant of the grand agricultural past that once reigned in the Sharon region. Construction sites have been gnawing at the margins of this gorgeous strawberry patch. Terrifying cranes move above us, while in the field serenity reigns, and the intoxicating aroma might make you forget the construction going on all around. Kneeling in the center of the field is Dr. Nir Dai of the Volcani Center’s Agricultural Research Organization. Since 2006 he has been engaged in the enhancement of strawberry cultivation in Israel.

Dai is passionate about the object of his research. “The strawberry constitutes one of the most astounding combinations of flavors found in nature,” he says. “It incorporates between 200 and 250 volatile substances, the combination of which produces the flavor of the strawberry that we value so highly.

“There is practically no extract that does not include strawberry [flavor]. Think of it: jam, yogurt, chewing gum, juices, ice cream – all our supermarket shelves are filled with strawberry-flavored items.”

His passion for strawberries is shared by Zulli and Nissim Tal, owners of Tal Farm, where Dai carries out his crop-enhancement research for the Volcani Center. “When we began growing strawberries 27 years ago, we were two university students, and thought we’d do it for only a year or two, until we were financially on our feet. But then we fell in love with it and we are still here,” says Zulli, smiling.

Strawberries aren’t easy to grow, says Zulli, who calls it “an unforgiving crop.”

Nissim: “It’s a very sophisticated plant. Unlike lettuce, for instance, in which the more water and minerals you give it, the bigger it will be, with strawberries it is important not to remove the plant from its state of balance. You have to constantly ensure that it will both produce fruit and keep on growing itself. The strawberry is sensitive to mistakes, and you have to give it what it needs in the proper measure.”

Strawberries.
Maya Ben-Nissan

The strawberry is an amazingly aesthetic plant, whose white flowers and yellow pollen compete aesthetically with its red fruits. Tasting the various strains, or cultivars, right after picking reveals a wealth of flavors, both sweet and tart. And Dai emphazises that strawberries are healthful, with abundant vitamin C and antioxidants.

Why are strawberry seeds on the outside of the fruit?

Dai: “The strawberry is unique in that way. The seeds are the actual fruit and what we eat is the ‘receptacle’ with the fruits lying on top of it.”

Introducing Rocky

The cultivated strawberry was first produced 250 years ago in the gardens of the Palace of Versailles in the time of the 18th-century botanist Antoine-Nicolas Duchesne. King Louis XV had ordered him to bring plants from around the world to France. The strawberry originated in North and South America, and spontaneous crossbreeding took place in the fields near Versailles Palace. Now, classified under the genus Fragaria, there are 13 different wild species and many more commercial strains and sub-strains.

“The strawberry arrived in Israel,” says Dai, “in the 1960s from California, where most cultivation efforts were then taking place. In the past, you could find strawberries in Israel only in February, but nowadays the season starts by mid-November. That is the most significant revolution of my predecessors in the department for strawberry cultivation at the Volcani Center. They found ways to get the strawberry to ripen early; they extended its season.”

Strawberries.
Maya Ben-Nissan

Israel’s long growing season used to enable local farmers to export strawberries to Europe. The season starts later there, so Israeli strawberries dominated the market for a full month or two and 20 percent of the Israeli crop was designated for export. But for the past three years or so exports have ceased, because Spain and Morocco produce cheaper strawberries.

Strawberries used to be intensively sprayed with pesticides, but no longer. Change came with the opening of export markets in the 1990s, which brought strict regulation, says Dai.

“In 2000, the government and the growers together began the initiative called ‘Bio-Tut.’ It makes use of natural enemies, wasps and predator mites, which act against strawberry pests such as aphids, making chemical spraying unnecessary. Today, most farmers implement this technique, which works superbly.

“However, it does not resolve the issue of disease. The primary disease afflicting strawberries is powdery mildew, which harms crops primarily in the fall. It is combated by using a mild spray, which is even permissible for use according to the organic standard. So the strawberry is now very safe for consumption.”

Dai counters the complaint that the flavor of the strawberry has deteriorated over the years. “In the past two or three years, I have in fact been hearing the opposite, that the flavor of the strawberry in Israel has greatly improved.”

Dai shows us several cultivars in their crates. The first is Rocky, which got its name from Dai’s son, Sela. “This is a cultivar that is also meant for export, so I thought it would be less challenging for people from abroad to call it Rocky rather than Sela,” Dai explains. “It has the characteristics you want for the local market, such as size, shelf life and balance. It is relatively easy to pick and to package, and its flavors and aroma are rated at good and higher.”

Dai calls the next variety “the newest fad in our cultivation program.” Since it is not yet official, it is still called Cultivation Line 229. The fruit is heart-shaped, firm, crisp and has a high sugar content, plus a long shelf life. At the moment, it is in the testing stage among farmers. Dai is optimistic about its chances for success at becoming a registered cultivar.

When Zulli and Nissim are asked about their favorite cultivar, Zulli immediately volunteers: “Tamar, or as it is known officially, Cultivar 328. As far as I’m concerned, it is the most strawberry there is – it is filled with juice, and also, its level of sourness and of sweetness are equally high. The consumers, on the other hand, are divided, between those that love a cultivar called Angel, which is devoid of sourness but is particularly sweet, and a cultivar known as Orly, which has both high sourness and high sweetness.”