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"There are two ways to contend with the desert: fight it or take advantage of its unique qualities for the greater good. The real desert is to be found within people, not in nature." President Shimon Peres was speaking on Wednesday, 4th February 2009, at the opening ceremony of the annual Arava Agricultural Exhibition in the Negev, organized by the Yair Northern and Central Arava Research & Development Station. He mentioned that he first visited the Arava sixty-five years ago when there was literally nothing here: "What you have accomplished here impacts the future of all of humanity. You found water where there was none. You made salty, sandy land arable. You have raised children in what seems to be impossible conditions.
"The more time passes, the more your achievements will be appreciated in Israel and abroad. India and China are watching you very keenly. You have transformed science into agriculture. There may not be many people living here quantitatively speaking, but in terms of quality, you are number one. I would like to hold a conference of all the world's pessimists in the Arava! I think that when they see what you have achieved here, that would be the end of their pessimism. Jordan is a good neighbor, and I would like to say to all our neighbors: let's make the land arable together, let's develop water sources, let's bring tourists here, let's make the Arava into a Garden of Eden. The revolution you have begun here should spread everywhere. Hope springs from the south!"
KKL-JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler addressed the crowd on Thursday, the second day of the exhibition: "In this region, with its harsh climate, 460 farms produce 60% of Israel's fresh vegetables. They also produce for export. Agriculture enables residents of the Arava to survive. This is why KKL-JNF supports Yair and other R&D stations throughout Israel by financing a good part of their budgets.
"Our commitment to the Arava does not end with the R&D stations. We provide local residents with the infrastructure that enables them to live on the land. We build water reservoirs, fish breeding pools and greenhouses. We pave roads and develop tourist sites like Peace Road, Sapir Park and Timna Park. This is KKL-JNF's way of life. This, in our opinion, is the most sublime expression of the word 'Zionism'. KKL-JNF sees the settlement of the land, particularly in those regions of the country that are distant from the central region, as one of the cornerstones of the Zionist vision. On behalf of KKL-JNF, I wish all the Arava communities continued prosperity and success."
Ezra Rabinas, head of the Central Arava Regional Council, was very moved to host President Peres at the exhibition: "This is President Peres' ninth visit here. He sincerely loves the Arava and has always been an excellent ambassador for us. It is my hope that in the near future, this event will become a world-class international exhibition. The Yair R&D Research Station helps realize the dreams of all the Arava farmers. I would like to thank Alon Gadiel, the head of the R&D station, and KKL-JNF, without whose support the Arava would still be an uninhabited wilderness."
President Peres toured the exhibition, the largest of its kind in Israel. The amazing achievements of Arava agriculture, which include growing summer vegetables such as peppers and tomatoes during the winter, growing flowers, fish breeding, greenhouse technology, to mention only a few, were on display along with agricultural equipment and machinery. At the R&D station, agricultural experts work with the farmers to find solutions to the challenges of desert agriculture, and, as President Peres said, local innovations are in demand throughout the world. A tourist from Spain who had come to learn about raising fish in the desert asked if the first person who had such an idea wasn't considered crazy: "The next thing you'll tell me is that I can go scuba diving here!"
We spoke with Gershon Avni KKL-JNF Land Development Director, about KKL-JNF's involvement in desert agriculture research: "Having land doesn't mean you can live on it. You need to prepare the land, discover or create water sources, and ensure that people can make a living here. There is no region in Israel that is so far from an urban center as the Arava, which is why KKL-JNF feels that we need to make a special effort to help the local population prosper. A farmer can't afford to make mistakes, but the R&D station can, and that is the only way to learn. I would also mention that although some people don't think it's such a good idea, our policy is to share all our findings with whoever is interested, in Israel or abroad, free of charge. This is one expression of the KKL-JNF vision, which is also global.
"We are able to fund agricultural research in the Arava and throughout Israel thanks to the support of our friends throughout the world. For example, JNF Australia and JNF America are helping to set up a new laboratory and to purchase new state-of-the-art equipment. Arava residents feel that they have partners worldwide."
As KKL-JNF Chairman Efi Stentzler said, "Agricultural research in the Arava proves that difficulties can be seen as opportunities to find new and sophisticated ways of transforming those seeming disadvantages into advantages. Imagination, creativity and audacity have made the Arava into a showplace of human ingenuity for the entire world to study."
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