Gathered around two tables in an Israeli vegetable storage laboratory on Thursday, about a dozen Gazan and West Bank farmers concentrated earnestly on the vine tomatoes and red bell peppers in front of them.
“We are learning many things here – from temperature, to weight, to quality,” Ayman A.J.
Abulayla, manager of the packing house at the Beit Lahiya Cooperative Association for Fruits and Vegetables, told The Jerusalem Post that morning.
The Palestinian farmers were participating in the final workshop of a five-day course in post-harvest techniques held at the Volcani Institute, within the Agriculture Ministry complex in Beit Dagan. Receiving funding from the Netherlands government, the course took place through a partnership among the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the Israeli Agriculture Ministry, Palestinian Authority growers’ associations and the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s MASHAV and CINADCO international cooperative development programs.
Their course is also part of a larger project already extended into its fourth year – Cash Crop Gaza and West Bank – funded by the Netherlands and implemented by the FAO, according to Hillel Adiri, senior technical marketing adviser at the FAO.
During their course, which began on Sunday, the farmers explored a variety of issues related to post-harvest of fruits and vegetables, explained Prof. Elazar Fallik, who organized the course with Adiri.
“We set up an experiment on Sunday afternoon – the main goal is to see how Mediterranean temperatures affect post-harvest quality,” said Fallik, a researcher at the Volcani Institute’s department of post-harvest science.
On their first day, the participants took qualitative parameter measurements on freshly picked tomatoes and peppers, such as weight, color, firmness and sugar content. Then, the vegetables were put in three different settings until Thursday: chilled, shelf-life and Mediterranean temperatures, Fallik explained.
Meanwhile, the farmers attended lectures and visited the Agriculture Ministry’s Plant Protection Services on Monday, where they learned about achieving European quality standards for their exports. For the next two days, the farmers visited various packing houses around central and southern Israel, as well as an agriculture research and development campus near the Gazan border, Fallik said.
On Thursday, during the Post’s visit to the Volcani Institute, the farmers were reevaluating the qualitative parameters, examining the vegetables with various measurement tools.
“They are supposed to see big changes regarding quality,” Fallik said. “The main goal is to show them that we need refrigeration.”
Examining the vegetables kept in the Mediterranean temperatures, the farmers found that both the tomatoes and peppers lost significant chunks of their weights.
“When you go back home you should tell the farmers that when they pick the fruit in the field, they should have a shed in the field, keep the boxes in the shed and not under the sun,” Fallik told them.
While the participants said that they intend to apply what they have learned in this week’s course to their farming practices, Abulayla said that refrigeration in Gaza is often a problem due to electricity outages.
“We only have six hours per day – it’s not enough to cool the vegetables,” Abulayla said.
In places where unstable electricity supplies inhibit proper refrigeration, such as in Gaza, Fallik said he advises farmers to build shed houses for cooling, or make use of caves, tunnels or discarded car bodies.
Though this issue remains problematic, Esaam Dawwas said he is pleased that the farmers are accomplishing a “first step” of learning about these important practices. After acquiring this knowledge, the next step will be to import the necessary machinery, added Dawwas, who is the quality control manager for the Beit Lahiya Cooperative Association.
“We hope that the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians will continue,” Dawwas said.
Dr. Shareef Khateb, an anesthesiologist from Tulkarm in the West Bank, who also serves as the volunteer manager for the Atil Cooperative Society for Agricultural Development, told the Post that he would be teaching farmers in his region what he has learned here in the coming days.
“Every teacher and professor became a friend, a contact,” Khateb said.
While West Bank products are often exported directly to Jordan, Gazan agricultural exports at the moment go nearly exclusively to Europe, through Palestinian and Israeli companies, such as Harvest Export and Arava Export Growers.
The hope is that eventually, Gazan farmers will also be able to sell their products to both the Israeli and West Bank Palestinian markets, Abulayla said.
Gazan farmers have lost significant chunks of potential revenue due to checkpoint closures, according to Abulayla.
Vegetables and strawberries in particular are often damaged, and keeping the checkpoints open could facilitate growth for the farmers, Dawwas added.
“We hope in the future it will be open for the farmers,” he said.
Raed Bsharat, one of four PA Agriculture Ministry representatives attending the course, emphasized, however, that there has been continuous cooperation between the Palestinian and Israeli agriculture ministries since the establishment of the PA. “We exchange expertise and experiences,” Bsharat said. “There are no borders among plant diseases and veterinary diseases. We are close to each other. We are obliged to work together and assist each other.”