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Agriculture in Israel: Agricultural Tourism

by Simon Griver

Agricultural tourism is a worldwide trend which offers city dwellers a chance to escape urban concrete and re-discover their rural roots. In addition visiting farmers, agronomists and other agricultural experts can evaluate worldwide developments in agriculture, which have been greatly influenced by modern technology.

According to Yitzhak Kiriati, director of the agriculture department at the Israel Export Institute, this is especially true in Israel, which is a world leader in applying high-tech systems to agriculture. "From computerized irrigation systems which also distribute fertilizers," he explained, "to new genetically developed varieties of seeds and livestock, Israeli researchers and farmers have successfully produced world record yields in many sectors. The greenhouse has also been adapted to arid conditions enabling the farmer to design his own climatic conditions."

But first and foremost Israel is the Holy Land and before checking out the country’s leading edge developments, agricultural tourists may wish to see how the land was farmed in biblical times. At locations like Ein Yael and Sataf near Jerusalem, Neot Kedumim between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and Kfar Kedem in the Galilee, visitors can see the terraced hillsides and irrigation channels that farmers built thousands of years ago. If tourists time their visit right at these places they may be allowed to stamp on grapes to make wine, press olives to produce oil or grind wheat for bread.

Four of the seven biblical species – grapes, olives, dates, and wheat (the others are barley, pomegranates and figs which still grow wild) form major agricultural industries today. Tourists can travel The Wine Route and The Olive Route through the Mate Yehuda and Yoav regions to the south-west of Jerusalem visiting (and sampling at) a series of small wineries and ancient and modern oil presses. Dates are grown in the Dead Sea region and the Jordan Valley where farming began thousands of years ago. Also worth visiting is the Dagon Museum in Haifa which exhibits the history of grain growing from earliest times until today.

Those wishing to see how the country’s pioneers established its modern agricultural infrastructure can visit the museum at the Dubrovin Farm, established in the late 19th century in the Upper Galilee’s Hula swamp and the Museum of Pioneer Settlement at Kibbutz Yifat, which depicts farming life in the region in the 1920’s.

Some 80% of Israeli agricultural output is still produced in the country’s socially innovative farming villages: the kibbutz – a collective where all income is shared equally; and the moshav – an agricultural cooperative where purchases and marketing are undertaken on a joint basis. Israeli agriculture can best be seen during a stay at one of these villages. The Kibbutzim have a network of guest houses which offer luxury hotel accommodations, while most moshavim have bed and breakfast accommodations.

At Binyamina, between Tel Aviv and Haifa, tourists can visit the citrus packing station and the surrounding groves. Citrus was the classic staple of the country’s modern agriculture. Israel still exports $200 million worth of citrus, annually, mainly oranges and grapefruits, and the landscape around Tel Aviv is dominated by citrus groves which exude a delightful fragrance in the spring. As with many fruits and vegetables grown in Israel, genetic engineering has enabled farmers to improve yields while using less water; grow citrus varieties that are more resistant to disease, ripen earlier or later in the season according to market demands; and offer a longer shelf life and storage attributes, and of course a better taste. Moreover, Israel has set culinary trends in Europe by introducing new fruits such as the avocado and the persimmon.

Kibbutz Ein Gedi near the Dead Sea shows visitors how Israel has transformed the desert. Israel excelled in developing tomatoes, cucumbers and melons grown in the winter in the country’s southern regions. In the case of tomatoes and melons, it was discovered that using highly saline geo-thermal waters creates sweeter varieties, while innovative strains of tomatoes – cherry tomatoes and tomatoes on a vine (eaten like grapes) – have proved popular with European consumers.

Cucumbers and tomatoes as well as peppers are grown in greenhouses with much higher yields. These can be established on inhospitable terrain and enable the farmer to create his own computer controlled environment, regulating heat, light, humidity and irrigation. Flowers are also best grown in greenhouses where yields can be treble that of conventional fields. Last year Israel exported $300 million worth of flowers. Other Israeli innovations include strains of colored cotton and types of cotton that require less water.

Of course irrigation has been the key to Israel’s agricultural success. The National Water Carrier transports water from the north with its relatively high rainfall to the arid south of the country. Furthermore, the Israeli invention of drip or precision irrigation has enabled small amounts of water to go a long way. Israel exports more than $250 million of irrigation equipment annually.

Israel also has much to offer in livestock rearing. Most cowsheds on the country’s kibbutzim and moshavim are computerized parlors where the average cow produces 10,198 kilograms of milk per year – easily a world record. The country is also a market leader in poultry with high egg-laying yields and Israelis are the world’s largest per-capita consumers of turkey meat. Israel has also become the world’s second largest producer of ostrich meat (all of which is exported), and large quantities of fish are raised in ponds.

Agricultural tourists may also want to visit R&D institutions like the Ministry of Agriculture’s Volcani Center near Tel Aviv and the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Agriculture near Rehovot.

With agricultural exports of $1.4 billion in 1997 and an additional $1.5 billion in overseas sales of agricultural inputs like irrigation equipment and fertilizers, Israel has much to offer the world in farming know-how. Agricultural tourism is an effective way to tap into that know-how.

Sources: Israel Magazine-On-Web, May 1999,: Israeli Foreign Ministry