Looking to greener pastures

After writing off months of milk production, farmers in the North are looking to compensation.

August 31, 2006 11:58
Looking to greener pastures

moo cow 88. (photo credit: )

Roni Litbak knows every one of his cows by name. He knows how much milk she gives. He knows which calves she's the mother of. And he immediately knew which ones he lost when a Katyusha landed in the cowshed and killed 50 of his cattle. "It was like a massacre," says Litbak, who was released from the army once it was reported that a rocket had landed in the middle of Kibbutz Amir, whose farm he manages. "When I got there I saw cows without heads, without legs, half cows, quarter cows, burning cows. It was a disaster. It was a disaster for normal people to see, and I think it was a 10 times worse disaster for people who work with the cows." Because the cows are like his family. The loss was personal as well as professional. Even before the attack, Litbak felt bad leaving his cattle unprotected just seven kilometers from the Lebanese border while he took cover in a bomb shelter. He and the other farm workers took turns staying above ground and tending on a limited basis to their charges. While Litbak's family moved south, he stayed put because the farm, as he explains, is a business that can't be left alone even for a minute. But working in shifts as they did, they couldn't work as they should. They couldn't feed or milk them as often. They couldn't give the cows their usual showers to cool them down, which makes them eat more and therefore produce more milk. And the cows themselves were terrified by all the violence, so they ate less and yielded less milk. "A cow needs to feel relaxed. She needs to eat, milk and sleep. If you see a cow running all the time, you see that something is not normal about how the cow is feeling," says Litbak as he stands aside dozens of cows chewing grass, swatting flies with their tails, and uttering the rare moo. "During the war they were stressed all the time. Sometimes you could see them running around the farm like lunatics because of the bombing." The signs of physical damage are subtle - the shed's roof is open in one area, small holes from ball-bearings proliferate, a crumpled Katyusha shell sits in Litbak's office - but they remain. As does the emotional injury. The cows are still in the process of returning to their former milk productivity. All of which makes the loss also financial. Litbak calculates that the war cost the farm close to NIS 1 million - or 80 percent of its net profits - in direct destruction, killed cows and lost production. And dairy farmers aren't the only ones who took a big hit because of the summer's war. Other livestock was also affected, such as chickens who laid fewer eggs. And crops couldn't be gathered, a particular problem for growers whose fruit was ripening right as hostilities broke out. So agriculturists in the north are picking up the pieces - sometimes, as it comes to Roni Litbak and his Katyusha rockets, literally - and trying to get back on their feet. Other business sectors are complaining that the government compensation falls short. But the farmers feel they are going to get what is due, and then recover, along with their cows. ALMOST A third - or 4,000 - of Israel's farmers reside in the northern part of the country, according to the Israel Farmers' Federation. Though exact figures won't be available for a few more weeks, the Ministry of Agriculture estimates they sustained up to NIS 500 million in losses over the course of the fighting. Infrastructure such as water systems and buildings was destroyed by Katyusha attacks and fires. Even the other dairy and beef farms, which number a little under 50, that didn't suffer direct rocket hits on their cattle suffered the same kinds of lost productivity as Kibbutz Amir. Growers, mainly of summer fruits, number over 1,000. They weren't able to harvest their crops or tend to their plants. And poultry farmers, of which there are at least 2,000, had chickens too scared to produce the many eggs. "We simply didn't have quiet for a single minute. You would be sitting and then suddenly there would be a boom," recollects Leah Mor, who owns a chicken coop in Kfar Yuval, which abuts the Lebanese border. "It was scary. And if we were scared all the time, then so were the birds." The chickens, 2,000 of whom sit beside her comfortable home, are still flustered, squacking and pecking as they sit three to a cage in staggered rows. Mor explains that when the chickens hear any disruptive noises, in this case Hizbullah rockets and Israeli artillery, "her egg-laying declines, she holds it in." And then, Mor continues, "She begins to move around in the hen house and the eggs are broken, and the broken eggs are unusable. You can't market broken eggs." Mor's egg yield might have gone down over 50% and her chickens, like the cows, might still not have started laying as many eggs as they used to. But the situation of her fall orchards is worse. The summer fruit intake is lost. Long lines of squat trees, many deep green in defiance of the black and brown charcoaled remains that surround them, bear ripe peaches, plums and nectarines hanging overripe and unplucked from the branches. They are so ripe that they would rot by the time they would reach market were they harvested now. And equal numbers of fruit have fallen from the trees, prey to the many visitors who scoop them up. Mor's husband himself tries to gather them so they won't go to waste, as the family foists them on visitors and bundles them up to give to the soldiers stationed nearby. The family lost their entire season's harvest since the war coincided precisely with the time the fruit needed to be gathered. The rest of the northern growers - 90% of the summer fruit farmers in the country - are in the same boat. Throughout the year "you just pay and pay and pay, and it's only now that you get money in return," explains Mor, pointing to the salary of the foreign workers they employ and the supplies they use to maintain the orchards. "Now when we were supposed to harvest and get money, the war began. It was impossible to go to harvest, because our fields are in Kiryat Shmona and Kfar Yuval, and the rockets fell on us like rain." Altogether, she said,"This is an enormous, enormous loss." And next year might not be much better. Because not only the harvesting but essential maintenance couldn't be done to the trees, the entire orchard is not functioning as it should. "The damage is there because we didn't spray the trees against bugs, we didn't fertilize. The trees need many things and we did nothing," Mor explains. Mor's husband estimates the damage at NIS 500,000 -- and believes that it will take up to four years to recover. Some of the trees have been burnt to cinder. For the fruit growers, the war couldn't have come at a worse time. They had already suffered through two bad summers, when a glut of fruit drove prices down so far that it was difficult for them to recoup their costs. "They entered the war in a pretty bad economic situation. They expected that this would be a good, promising year, in both the quantity and quality of the fruit, and the markets looked good at the beginning of the season. The war confounded the whole process," according to Yusta Bleier, the secretary-general of the Israel Farmers' Federation. "Of course, when you ask farmers, 'Why do you want to continue to work?' they say, 'Next year it will be better.' Someone who thinks that the next year will be worse leaves this line of work immediately. This is the optimism of all farmers around the world: that next year will be good," Bleier says. "And they really thought, that after two difficult years for most of the different types of fruits, this can happen." And they didn't just think it, he says. The signs pointed in the direction of a good year that would restore the previous years' losses. Now, according to Bleier, "The farmers can't get through this crisis without the help of the government." Perhaps displaying some of his own optimism from a life spent farming, Bleier expresses confidence that the government will come to the rescue of the North's agricultural industry, though even so he thinks it will take something like a year to recover. "Most of the income of the North is based on agriculture and tourism," notes Dafna Yurista, spokeswoman for the Agriculture Ministry. "Because this is the basis of most of the income there, we need to take care of them." The plan provides three routes for receiving money. The first, or green, track provides full compensation for farmers and is calculated according to one's crops and dunams. The second, or red, track is for farmers who think that they perform better than the norm and want more money than they would receive under the "green" standardized system. To get such coverage, they will have to supply receipts, tax returns and other proof to show that they are entitled to more restitution. According to Israel Farmers' Federation economist Rachel Borushek, only a few exporters are expected to apply for that track, and even less for the third, "pink" path, a complicated combination of the two. Currently, all farmers using the green route are due to receive 100% compensation for their losses, but the process will be simpler and more remunerative for those along the confrontation line. They will only need to submit a list of their crops and dunams and the government will calculate how much they are owed. Farmers further south need to submit the same information but indicate how many days they were able to work, which will be deducted from the total sum they receive, according to Borushek. While they won't need to provide any documentation about days lost, the Agriculture Ministry will do some spot checks of farms and their data. Borushek says that policy is fair. "Everyone knows they [farmers in the lower Galilee] were able to go into the fields and pick their fruit because there wasn't a rain of Katyushas." Claims are starting to be processed, but none have been paid out yet. Bleier says the current scheme is more than adequate, though an individual farmer here and there might not be able to overcome the setback of this summer. The compensation program itself was drawn up before the Katyushas had even finished falling. "This isn't the first time we've had a war, so, unfortunately, we've also gained a lot of experience on the issue of compensation," says Bleier with a sad smile. "The government understands the problem and, so far, [has been] great. It's possible that there will be failures later on, but in the meantime, this is a positive precedent amidst all the mess." He is aware that other businesses have many complaints with the way the government is handling compensation - that they are saying that they want to be treated as the farmers have. One reason it has been easier so far for those in agriculture to be reimbursed, according to Borushek, is that the value of the product lost is easier to assess. While each restaurant has to prove how successful it was and therefore how much funding it's entitled to, farmers have easily quantifiable products. "Here the government knows what an apple, what a pear, what a grape is [worth]," she explains. Bleier argues that it's appropriate that the government made the farming sector "a priority," even as other industries complain about lagging compensation efforts and under-assessment. In addition to the contribution agriculture makes to the economy of the North, Bleier asserts that the farms play an important role in securing the border of the state. "If you go out in the region, you'll see that at the border, at the very edge, there are apple orchards and peach orchards," he says. "If there weren't farmers sitting at the border, there wouldn't be one. There wouldn't be any definition of a border. They're defining the borders of the country." He continues, "We say that the farmers drew the map. There almost aren't cities aside from Kiryat Shmona that are close to the border. All the rest are farmers." Bleier points particularly to the role of farms in high-risk areas - in this case along the Lebanese border. Since before the founding of the State of Israel, communities based on agriculture have been founded in the region to ensure Jewish population in the border regions. "To settle the periphery is a national priority" with "strategic importance," explains Yurista. "We need to encourage them" - whether through grants, sufficient war compensation or other financial incentives - "in order for them to stay there." She says the government is acting quickly when it comes to farmers because "in the long term, we don't want people in the North to be hurt by this war." Litbak also says the government has to play a special role for the people in his environs, who have suffered so much. Without such funds, he says it would be hard to continue. Throughout Israel's history, the damage wrought to citizens during the war was always recompensed by the government. "I think it's right," says Litbak. "If during every war in Israel, citizens would lose so much money," Litback adds while laughing to himself, "we would have a lot of problems because we have a lot of wars." Until the next one, Litbak is busy choosing new cows to replace the ones that have died and enjoying the freedom of tending to his farm without fear of falling rockets. "We got a very strong punch from this war, but it's not going to break us. It's not going to make us fall," he declares. "We're going to recover. It will take time, but we're going to do it."

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