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Bringing Water to the Desert

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The sight was breathtaking. The reddest peppers I had ever seen were hanging deliciously from their vines, just begging to be picked. Some were planted in traditional soil (or more accurately, sand – we were in the desert, after all), and others in this new-fangled “popcorn soil,” the latest and greatest technique to come out of the Yair Agricultural Research Station I was touring. My guide, a scientist at the station, explained that the “popcorn” is actually a stone that gets heated to 5,000 degrees, causing it to pop and act like a sponge. When wet, it can irrigate the plant continuously and is therefore much more efficient than sand.

The “popcorn soil” is but one example of the fascinating technology developed at Israel’s research & development (R&D) stations. Here, in the Arava Desert, modern-day agricultural miracles are performed each day. In an area with an average rainfall of only 20 millimeters a year, farmers manage to produce 60% of the country’s produce for export.  Jewish National Fund’s multi-million dollar yearly investment in R&D is a driving force behind this improbable achievement.

“You have to be a dreamer to survive here,” Ronit Ratner, a local farmer, told me, “because it is so hot and our work is hard. How do we do it? We couldn’t do it without JNF – the land preparation, drilling of wells and reservoir building. Not to mention that they fund 50% of the R&D budget. They are the enabler. They do sacred work.”

The research that comes out of these stations is shared with the farmers of the Arava for free.

“When I first came to this region and saw how barren and dry it was, I wondered to myself whether God had overlooked it when He created the world,” said Ratner. “But part of what I love about living here is the sense of being a creator myself when we make this place green. The United Nations sends experts here to see what we have accomplished and to study our methods.”

Some notable achievements include growing produce — including olives and tomatoes – using brackish, or salty, water. Most of Israel’s olive plantations are found in the north of the country, where freshwater is most plentiful, but deep in the heart of the desert, on Kibbutz Revivim, olives irrigated by brackish water are turned into award-winning Halutza™ Premium Olive Oil. Not one drop of freshwater reaches the roots of these olive trees, which grow on 1,350 acres. The main source for irrigation is a subterranean reservoir of salt water, 700-800 meters beneath the parched earth, that is accessed by JNF-drilled wells.

At the Center for Experiments in Desert Farming in Ramat Hanegev, established by JNF, JNF researchers joined with scientists from the Ben-Gurion University, the Vulkani Institute, and the Hebrew University to figure out how to grow tomatoes using brackish water. Farmers were initially skeptical, believing the salt water would kill any vegetation, so at first the water was only used to heat the hothouses that are irrigated with fresh water during the cold season.

At the experimental station, organic tomato plants are all irrigated with salt water mixed with floodwater and recycled wastewater. Using sophisticated technology, researchers carefully monitor the plants to determine the correct percentage of salt needed for each species to thrive.
Ramat Hanegev farmers produce 15,000 tons of ‘Desert Sweet’ tomatoes in 250 acres of hothouses, ranging from organic tomatoes to especially small strains of cherry tomatoes that are sold at a high price to restaurants and hotels throughout the world.

In addition to preserving precious freshwater in this thirsty desert region, growing tomatoes with brackish water has a pleasant, if unintended, side effect: as a reaction to the pressure that the salt exerts on its cells, the tomato plants produce more sugar, making their flesh even sweeter than those grown in central and northern Israel.

I left the region, my head spinning with all this new information and filled with awe and pride. Awe that at only 60-years-old, this country is a leader in transforming the agricultural world, especially in arid regions. And pride, that by being involved with JNF I help make that happen.


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