University scientists team up with growers to make crops with less drops

Israel is famously known as a land of milk and honey, but it is hardly one that is flowing with water. For Israeli scientists today, maximizing water use is a key focus for research and innovation.

It may also be key to avoiding the regional war everyone says must happen some day — a war for water.

For the scientists, though, the main goal is finding ways to grow plentiful amounts of food in arid lands.

In the midst of harsh desert conditions in the Negev and the Arava, Israel’s long, eastern valley, Israeli researchers and farmers have created a flourishing network of high-tech agriculture. Tomatoes, peppers, olives, cheeses, and grapes emerge from the arid land despite the fact that annual rainfall totals are measured in mere inches and the proximity to the Dead Sea produces groundwater that is highly saline.

Students at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev get a first-hand look at the harshness of the desert, and the challenges it poses. photo/courtesy of bgu

Naftali Lazarovitch, a specialist in irrigation at the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), does much of his experimentation at the Zohar Research Station near the Dead Sea, where greenhouses that resemble white plastic caterpillars serve as indoor fields as well as laboratories. Before Lazarovitch explains the technology that allows crops to grow with saline irrigation water, he offers visitors the fruit of his research — literally: a gorgeous array of orange, purple, yellow, and red bell peppers packed with crispness, crunch and flavor. The peppers, which are exported to global markets, grow in small containers of perlite, a soil-less culture made of a mixture of stones, coconut powder and crushed building material.

The Israeli-pioneered method of subsurface drip irrigation — which allows water to trickle slowly to the roots of plants — nourishes fat red tomatoes planted in soil, agricultural guinea pigs of sorts for experiments on water use, evaporation, irrigation and salinity levels. Melons and sweet basil grow in nethouses.

The main idea, Lazarovitch explains, “is how to make crops with less drops.”

The area is disconnected from the country’s main water supply, and desalinated water is available only by pipe when municipalities and factories have an overage, so farmers have learned to use the saline water below the soil. Sometimes, the unforgiving conditions that Negev scientists tend to call “stress” create good things in plants: more antioxidants, better color. The yield, however, is reduced.

Winemaker Daniel Kish photo/rahel musleah

On the road south from Beersheva, a grove of 250 olive trees newly planted at the experimental Wadi Mashash Farm has sprouted almost miraculously in seemingly parched sand. Pedro Berliner, director of the Blaustein Institutes, explains that modern agroforestry is reclaiming ancient Nabatean methods of water harvesting, a cheap, robust and efficient system. The amount of rainfall in the area is only four inches, he says, but there are a few “high intensity events.” Instead of being absorbed immediately into the ground, the heavy rains flow to low-lying areas and pool in previously prepared plots surrounded by dikes. The soil slowly absorbs and stores the water so crops can grow throughout the summer.

Using the same technology, an adjacent acacia forest provides firewood and fodder for animals; corn will be planted in between the trees. The techniques developed at Wadi Mashash are helping Third World countries combat desertification, the further degradation of arid lands.

Three dozen ranches in the Negev specialize in olives, goat cheese, and fish, and a dozen different vineyards produce anywhere from 1,000 to 150,000 bottles a year.

At Kish Farm, Daniel Kish, a sculptor, has turned his artistry to the creation of boutique organic wines. BGU researcher Aaron Fait works with Kish to test the impact of intense light, temperature, and mild drought conditions on the grapes, and to determine how those variables affect the quality of the wine and the presence of anti-inflammatory compounds like Resveratrol.

The low humidity prevents fungi and bacteria, so pesticides are unnecessary. Birds are the biggest nuisance. “If you are the only wet and colorful thing in a desert, you will be eaten,” jokes Fait.

In fact, the combination of technology and agriculture has created quite a lot to eat in the desert. Many of the artisanal foods are served at the luxurious new Beresheet Hotel, built on high cliffs that look down into the panorama of Makhtesh Ramon, often called Israel’s Grand Canyon. The hotels’ pan-Mediterranean restaurant purchases ingredients from local kibbutzes, farms and wineries. The hotel only has to satisfy the appetites of its hungry guests, but multiplied exponentially, the scientific and agricultural advances in the Negev have vast potential. As Lazarovitch says, “If we figure out how to solve the combined stresses of drought and salinity, we could feed the world.”

Rahel Musleah is a New York-based journalist who took part in the AABGU 7th Annual Murray Fromson Media Mission.