Agriculture where plants can’t grow: Israel’s Arava valley

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Arava desert agriculture

Israel’s central Arava desert, where saline soils and dry climates are the norm, a thriving community creates up to 60% of Israel’s exported agricultural products. Recently, I visited the Arava valley to see the miracle of agriculture in the desert up close and personal.

According to our tour host Michal Marmary:

“By any standard, farming shouldn’t be happening in the Arava. Saline soil, lack of water, and blazing sun are not the ideal conditions in which to farm. Yet, agriculture thrives where you’d least expect it. Arava farmers take what nature has given them and, with hard work and creative solutions, have created a flourishing farming community. 

Today, about 800 families that live in 7 communities are involved in a variety of farming pursuits. 40,000 dunams of cultivated desert land produce 150,000 tons of vegetables; mainly tomatoes and peppers. This produce is mostly destined for export to Europe, the US and Russia, and constitutes about 60% of the total export volume of fresh vegetables from Israel.”

The valley gets a paltry amount of rainfall: by some estimates less than a centimeter per month (less than 4-5 inches per year). By contrast, the driest state in the United States (usually Wyoming) gets roughly double that, and is still classified as desert. Wyoming’s agricultural economy largely consists of some widely grazed pastures by undernourished cows, and yet, here in the Arava region of Israel, everything from eggplant to watermelon is grown, but mainly it’s tomatoes and peppers that dominate the landscape.

The Kibbutz Hatzerim, one of the pioneering settlements in the region, is a great case study in how this revolution happened. Established in 1946 prior to the creation of the nation of Israel, the Kibbutz settled land that, according to historical accounts, had barely one acacia tree growing, and whose soils were mostly alkaline dust. After 10 years of trying agriculture in the region, many of the original settlers left and the community was in danger of dissolving entirely. But through persistence and ingenuity, the original members were able to scratch out a living and begin to find crops that were better adjusted to the region’s difficult environs. They pressured the government of Israel many times to continue exploration of water resources, and after many failed attempts at finding subsurface water suitable for agriculture, they eventually found a fairly steady supply of brackish water, with salinity about 1/10 that of seawater, but still too much for most agricultural applications.

In 1959, a major breakthrough occurred when Simcha Blass and his son Yeshahashu experimented with what would later be known as drip irrigation technology, wherein water could efficiently be delivered both subsurface and on the surface directly to the roots of the plant, rather than being blasted out through sprinklers. According to some tour guides from the Kibbutz Hatzerim, flood irrigation is about 50% effective, while their system of drip irrigation is upwards of 97% effective, in terms of how much water gets to the roots of the plants versus how much evaporates off or goes unused by the plant. Yield is correspondingly higher as well.

Drip irrigation at work in the Arava desert in Israel.

But the benefits of drip irrigation go far beyond yield and water efficiency. By keeping water off the leaves, farmers can help keep disease in check. By not irrigating the soils beyond where the roots of the plants are, farmers can help keep pests from becoming a major nuisance. According to our guides at the Kibbutz Hatzerim, where wastewater is 100% recycled (even blackwater, since the water never touches the leaves of the plants), they have no need to use pesticides as a result of drip irrigation.

Kibbutz Hatzerim partnered with Blass to create Netafim, a firm dedicated to the manufacture and sale of drip irrigation technologies globally. While on tour, I found myself asking, “But doesn’t the whole world know about this already?” After all, we’ve written about drip irrigation innovations many times over the last ten years, (including a really cool profile of drip irrigation development in Turkey), and, as with many other “no-brainer” sustainability innovations, I just want to believe that everyone’s on board already.

Yet even in arid Israel, penetration of drip irrigation is only 75% and in California, where much of the United States’ produce is grown, market penetration is only 40%, according to our tour hosts. Time for us sustainability journalists to up our game, apparently!

Drip irrigation photo from a Kinetis tour of sustainability sites in Israel. Pepper photo courtesy U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv on Flickr Creative Commons

3 thoughts on “Agriculture where plants can’t grow: Israel’s Arava valley”

  1. I visited Israel for a fortnight and could see the tremendous development of Agriculture there.

    Why not Israel grow Agave and Opuntia in the desert lands which are care-free growth,regenerative,CAM plants and which act as input for Biofuel,biogas for power generation. Mexico is pioneer in this.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

  2. good article. I invite the author to come to Wyoming and see that we do have a fair amount of irrigated agriculture, and vegetable producers!

  3. Thanks for the article, it is inspiring, like the website.
    Can you please add the date when this was written/published online? It would gain more traction and credibility if it can be situated in a context

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