Ambassadors and other representatives of nine Latin American countries set out this week for a tour of KKL-JNF’s agricultural research and development stations and water reservoirs in southern Israel, established with help of KKL-JNF friends worldwide. In a joint initiative with the Foreign Ministry, KKL-JNF treated the diplomats to an introductory visit to agricultural research and development facilities. The weather was glorious, and the wild flowers that bloom in the south at this time of year displayed their brightest colors.
Two hours after leaving Herzliya and their daily routine behind them, the visitors arrived at the Besor Agricultural R&D Station, which specializes in providing solutions to problems encountered by local farmers. Guided by Israeli born Rebecca Nokrian, a self-taught Spanish speaking tour guide, the ambassadors were intrigued by the subject and the accurate explenations they recieved.
Irit Dori, Coordinator of the research facility’s flower section, explained to the guests that the Southern Research and Development Station was the first center established in Israel to provide solutions for crops grown by residents settled in the area by the State in the 1970s. “This center is designed to accompany intensive farming in Israel,” explained Dori.
The Southern R&D Station operates under the auspices of KKL-JNF, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Center for the Development of the Negev and Galilee and the World Zionist Organization. The station works in conjunction with the Ministry of Agriculture’s extension services and their instructors, who convey the information to the farmers, and with Israel’s leading research facilities, such as its universities and the Volcani Institute.
“Most of the station’s activities focus on applied research and on finding solutions for farmers’ problems with growth houses and with growing vegetables, flowers, spices, organic crops – and, recently, newly-introduced plants such as grapevines,” said Irit. Among the innovations developed at the research station are special nets to protect vegetables against viral insects, ground-cover sheets and colored nets that provide shade for the protection of peppers, tomatoes and flowers.
Irit told the diplomats that flowers are one of the areas in which Israeli agriculture excels particularly. “The flower business has fashions – each year brings new trends and new flowers become popular,” she said. “That’s why we spend most of our time searching for new products from different parts of the world, and here at the station we spend three or four years acclimatizing them so that we can tell farmers what basic growing conditions are necessary for each particular flower or plant,” she explained.
As they toured the greenhouses and listened to descriptions of the crops that the research station’s staff are working on at the moment, the visitors were informed by Irit that during the winter months the local farmers export summer flowers, mainly to Europe. “This is the season when Israeli produce can compete in the European market, because at this time of year Europe gets very little of the sunshine necessary for flower growing,” she said.
In the course of her explanations, between her descriptions of one variety and the next, Irit asked the visitors to join her and the rest of the Israeli public in observing five minutes’ silence for Gilad Schalit, the Israeli soldier who has been held in captivity by Hamas for five years. Irit explained that this initiative is designed to remind Israelis, Jews and the whole world of the plight of the kidnapped soldier. All the deputation members joined her and stood in silence.
In the tomato greenhouses the guests were asked to dip their shoes in disinfectant so as to ensure that the varieties on trial would not be affected by insects that managed to slip in undetected. She added that infections in the soil can also be avoided by planting a different type of crop every year.
Representatives of the more arid countries were excited to encounter varieties of flower like the elegant star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum) that can survive perfectly well for over a week without being watered, and the diplomats’ wives asked for the names of the buttercups (Ranunculus) imported from Italy and France and for those of the peonies and the festive white calla lilies.
The next stop on the itinerary was even more exciting: a visit to the Halutsiot – two communities of around a hundred families each that were built to provide homes for families evacuated from Gush Katif. These new communities look almost exactly like the Gush Katif settlements that were destroyed, and they have been built to replace them – with schools, kindergartens, a pre-army preparation center and, most important of all, dozens of greenhouses a
nd agricultural plots now flowering in the Negev as they once flowered in the communities evacuated in the summer of 2005 under the Israeli government’s disengagement plan.
“We hope to finish all the construction in another couple of months and then people can move into the houses and public buildings we’ve put up here,” said Halutsiot Projects Director Rafi Ben Bassat. “Most Halutsiot residents work in agriculture or education,” he added.
Rafi told the visitors about the crops that characterize the area: dozens of varieties of potato, carrots, lettuce and peppers, some of which are grown organically. At this point even the most formal ambassadors rolled up their sleeves and dug away energetically to unearth the sweet carrots and golden potatoes. The guests were astonished when they heard that each plot produces only a single harvest each year. “We don’t want to overuse the land, it’s not good for the minerals in the soil, for the vegetables or for the land itself,” said Rafi.
Rafi explained the advanced methods of irrigation used for the various harvests, and told the guests about mechanized picking. “After being picked, the vegetables are packed and send straight to Ashdod Port, on their way to Europe,” he said, and informed the curious diplomats that the area exports produce worth some 300 million NIS each year.
“Almost all the countries represented here have well established agricultures,” said El Salvador Ambassador Ms Susan Hasenson. “It’s interesting to observe the new technologies, especially in times like these, when entire regions, such as Africa, can benefit from this knowledge and use it to help them survive. Israeli agriculture is very professional and most inspiring.”
While the diplomats and their wives gnawed at the carrots they had dug up a moment before, Chilean Ambassador Mr. Joaquin Montes remarked that it was not economically viable for his own country to make its northern deserts bloom., “Chile is a big country and it has enough land for farming,” he said. “Making the desert bloom would cost more money than it could generate. But this does not prevent my being profoundly impressed by the resourcefulness of Israeli agriculture, and I imagine that some time in the future we’ll have to think about this, too,” he concluded. Agriculture in Chile and Israel is similar, in that both excel at growing apples, grapes, avocados and even wine grapes. “Both countries have improved the standards of their wines in recent decades, and, in my opinion, they’ve managed to do this only because the winery owners have worked together and shown themselves to be a force to be reckoned with internationally,” said the ambassador.
The Peruvian Ambassador to Israel, Mr. José Luis Salinas, said he thought that
Israeli agriculture had a lot in common with Peruvian agriculture, which extends down the long desert coastline where its proximity to the country’s ports facilitates export. “Recently Peru has begun to establish a technology-based agriculture,” he explained. “And when I see what can be done in hot desert areas, I’m excited and delighted.” He added proudly that his country, which is the world’s leading exporter of asparagus and which, because of its wide variety of climates, can specialize in a whole range of different crops, would host the Agritech Exhibition this year for the first time, in May 2011. “Peru has been chosen to host the exhibition because of the great potential of its agriculture, which is only now beginning to develop,” he said.
At noon the bus took the ambassadors to the pastoral Eshkol Park. There, in the generous shade of the eucalyptus trees with Ein HaBesor springs as a backdrop, they enjoyed a delightful lunch prepared by the owner of a small catering business in Ofakim, who served them an authentic Moroccan meal.
From there they continued on to a lookout point and to a eucalyptus-planting ceremony in Beersheba River Park. In a special KKL-JNF project, this park has been extended in recent years, with the help of Friends of KKL-JNF worldwide, Beersheba Municipality and the Shikma-Besor Drainage Authority, which has removed thousands of tons of refuse from the river and turned the area into a beauty spot. “Beersheba is undergoing an overall renovation at present, and the restoration of Beersheba River Park is the crowning achievement,” said Yishai Avital, aide to the Mayor of Beersheba.
After the day’s many excitements the ambassadors read the Planter’s Prayer together, then set to work energetically to plant the eucalyptus saplings in an area overlooking the extensive parkland.
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