"Even if KKL-JNF didn't support the R&Ds at all, we would still love KKL-JNF, because their goals and our goals are the same." Myron Sofer, director of the Western Negev Research and Development Station, was speaking at the Open Day Agricultural Exhibition that took place at the R&D on Wednesday, January 4, which attracted visitors from all over Israel, including farmers from the Palestinian Authority and neighboring Arab countries. "What makes us unique is our commitment to making research relevant, which means that our findings should 'cross the road' to be applied in the field by farmers within about three years. I am a resident of Sde Nitzan, where Israel's first greenhouses were built. This was the first R&D station to work with greenhouses, and now there are over 100,000 dunams of protected agriculture throughout Israel.
"About two years ago, a KKL-JNF mission from Toronto visited us. They were very impressed by what we're doing here and decided to finance a Wi-Fi network for us, which was just completed and named for them. Originally, the R&Ds were funded by the Jewish Agency, but they decided to stop supporting us, and that's when KKL-JNF came into the picture. What's really nice about this arrangement is that we're on the same page. KKL-JNF's Mickey Kaplan is very involved in planning and everyday activities, and we speak the same language.
"We have a lot of plans for the future, but they are all dependent on future support. We want to make a good part of the R&D wheelchair accessible. We need a modern laboratory - calling the laboratory we have now 'antiquated' is to give it a compliment. Our budget is primarily for research, and we need to upgrade our equipment and build new greenhouses. Without KKL-JNF, we simply wouldn't exist."
KKL-JNF CEO Ms. Yael Shealtiel, who was at the fair along with KKL-JNF Southern Region Director Ami Oliel, said that developing the Negev was at the top of KKL-JNF's priority list: "Besides creating infrastructures for Negev villages, we are committed to ensuring a means of making a livelihood for the amazing people who live in the Negev, which is where agricultural research comes in. Thanks to the support of its friends throughout the world, KKL-JNF funds 50% of the budget of Israel's research and development stations, which are located in peripheral regions of the country in the north and south. Before the ceremony, Haim Yellin, the head of the Eshkol Regional Council, told me that no matter how long I would speak, I couldn't say enough about what KKL-JNF has done for the western Negev."
Haim Yellin continued: "KKL-JNF is a central partner to everything connected with life in the western Negev. As far as settlement and agriculture go, there are almost no projects that we carry out without KKL-JNF. The great advantage of the R&D stations is that they create a bridge between theoretical scientific knowledge and the farmers in the field. This also works in the opposite direction – farmers bring their questions and problems to the R&D stations, which try to provide them with answers and solutions. You can see the results here today."
A distinguished guest at the fair was Mr. Henry Hanson Hall, the ambassador of Ghana to Israel, who was visiting along with Yaw Safo-Adu Amankwah, deputy head of the Ghana mission to Israel. "Ghana is an agricultural country," the ambassador explained. "We take inspiration from Israel. We love trees, and afforestation is very important for us. A lot of rain falls in our country, but we need to develop means of collecting and storing it. This is one of the fields we would like to cooperate with Israel in.
"I actually know quite a bit about KKL-JNF and you may be surprised to know that I am a regular reader of your publications. One of the things I was most amazed to discover is that you raise fish in the desert! I think one of the main things that it is important for our country to learn from you is your determination to succeed and achieve, something we need to impart to our young people."
The beautifully designed KKL-JNF booth at the agricultural fair, which was expertly overseen by KKL-JNF's Rinat Kedoshi, was a meeting place for longtime friends and associates, along with providing an opportunity for people to learn about KKL-JNF's commitment to agricultural research and development.
Sigal Peretz was visiting the KKL-JNF booth with her friend Shulamit: "I live in Gan Yavne and provide professional advice to farmers, mainly related to vegetables. I work with Professor Tzvika Mandel, who recommended that we attend a KKL-JNF one-day conference on the topic of pests and how they can be controlled, so I'm actually very familiar with KKL-JNF's involvement with agriculture."
Motti Hadad from Meitar is also an agricultural consultant: "As part of my work, I know about KKL-JNF's water projects in the Negev, especially the Besor reservoirs, water recycling and stream restoration. What I didn't know and just discovered at the booth was that KKL-JNF promotes and helps create infrastructure for tourism to the Western Negev. It's great that this is being showcased at the fair, because I don't think a lot of the local people were aware of this."
Myron Sofer directed us to a display of one of his pet projects, irrigation control to save water, a precious commodity in Israel. Dubi Tzohar described the research goals: "Tense-o-meters, which measure water tension twenty centimeters deep in the soil, have been in use for 110 years, but never fully taken advantage of. I would say that to this day, 90% of the farmers decide how much to irrigate their fields by intuition, and what we're discovering is that they're not always right. We are working on various ways of measuring how damp the soil is and sending that information directly to the farmers' computers. We are getting some very positive results, which make us think that we may be able to save significant amounts of water in the near future. One of the problems with this technology is that understanding and analyzing the data can be quite complicated, so we're writing a protocol that will be user friendly and accessible."
A Plethora of Peppers
Hannah Yehezkel works on pepper research at the R&D: "We are studying over thirty different species of peppers, many of them for export to Europe during the winter. We started growing peppers for export in the western Negev only about five or six years ago, and one of our advantages over hotter regions of the Negev is that we can also grow them here during the hot summer months for local consumption. Our research is geared towards identifying those strains that produce the best peppers in terms of appearance, weight, taste and shelf life, because they are shipped to Europe by boat, which takes about two weeks. We also put a lot of effort into discovering ways to use fewer pesticides, which is very important for the European market. I've been working at the R&D station for over twenty years and I can honestly say that without KKL-JNF, the station would simply not exist."
Uri Patkin explained about the latest results on work being done with strawberries: "Training strawberry vines to climb and grow off the ground began in Israel about ten years ago. The advantages of this method are that the strawberries are much easier to pick, the fruit is more beautiful and cleaner than when it's on the ground, the shelf life is longer, and the fruit is less susceptible to disease and pests that attack it on the ground, so it's possible to use fewer pesticides. We compete for the overseas market with countries like Egypt and Morocco, which grow strawberries at the same out-of-season time that we do, so it's critical for us to always be innovative and to provide better produce. Our job at the R&D station is to be one step ahead of everyone else and find tomorrow's species today."
Squash – Climb or Crawl, that is the Question
Almost all the squash grown throughout the world crawl along the ground, but, as Haim Liners explained, scientists at the Southern R&D station are experimenting with ways of training the squash plants to climb, in order to prevent the vegetable from being attacked by pests and to make harvesting an easier job. The current experiment is focused on growing squash in a closed structure covered by netting and comparing squash grown by the traditional method to squash grown in this new manner. The results might be the beginning of a real breakthrough for western Negev farmers.
Lisianthus in the Negev
"There are three main criteria for lisianthu flowers," Irit Dori explained. "One, they should be about 80 cms long, two, in terms of their weight, there should be a suitable ratio between their weight and their length, so that they're neither too thin nor too thick, and three, that there should be at least five buds on each stalk. Another thing we're looking into is the flower's shelf life in the vase. Israel's advantage in this market is its ability to market the flowers during the winter months, so we are experimenting with planting towards the end of August, and are looking forward to the results."
Peonies in the Negev Desert?
"We planted these flowers about a month ago," said Gideon Luria as he showed visitors one of the R&D's most innovative experiments, "and are expecting them to bloom in about a month from now. This is a flower that loves cold and is grown in Holland over the cool months preceding the Dutch summer. We wanted to grow them during our winter, in order to market them in Europe during a time of the year when they are not available. People are used to seeing them in the spring, so we need to make them get accustomed to buying them in February. There are now about 450 dunams of peonies in the north, and about 30-40 dunams in the Western Negev. We developed various methods of providing the flowers with the degree of cold they are used to, including special growing platforms that allow the farmers to move the flowers to refrigerators a few hours every day. We are also experimenting with new strains of the flower that demand less cold," Luria concluded.
And to once again quote Myron Sofer: "I myself am a Negev farmer. We live here and believe in settling this amazing part of Israel. Making it possible to farm the Negev is not just a job we do, it's something deeply engraved in our very bones."
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