With the hills of Tulkarm visible in the horizon, a group of 30 Palestinian farmers peered through rows of red fruit in the Arab-Israeli city of Kalansuwa – their second stop of the day on a strawberry cultivation study tour.
“I teach English in the morning and am a farmer in the afternoon,” Naim Shakri of Tulkarm told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday’s first stop in Tel Yitzhak.
Shakri and the other farmers came to Israel for a two-day continuing education program in the Sharon region, to learn about some of the strawberry-growing methods used in Israel. The group, predominantly from the Tulkarm and Jenin areas, met with farmers developing commercial seedlings and others experimenting on new growth techniques – both employing hanging systems and traditional in-ground planting methods.
“I came to study new things today,” said Abed al-Salam, who is from a village near Tulkarm, where he grows both strawberries and vegetables.
The tour was organized by Israel’s Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria, the principle facilitator for similar such collaborative ventures between Israeli and Palestinian farmers.
Nasser Bsharat, from Al-Jiftlik in the Jordan Valley, stressed how much there is to learn about the different types of strawberries that can be grown – pointing out that there are 42 different types being cultivated at their first stop of the day, the Romano Strawberry Nursery.
The nursery, sandwiched between Kibbutz Tel Yitzhak and the Neveh Hadassah Youth Village in the Hof Hasharon Regional Council area, develops and markets strawberry seedlings to growers.
Bsharat said the farmers are keen to learn new techniques for growing strawberries both within greenhouses and in fields, as well as disease-prevention mechanisms.
Stressing not only the importance of cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian farmers, but also the routine nature of such relationships, Bsharat said the Jiftlik community lives “as neighbors” with the residents of the nearby Masu’a settlement.
“If I have any problem [with my farm], I ask my neighbors,” he said.
Several of the farmers participating in the study-tour Wednesday and Thursday are already involved with such collaboration on a professional level in the strawberry sector.
Shakri, the English teacher and farmer, is one of five Palestinian farmers participating in a pilot program launched in mid-2014 by Israel’s civil administration in conjunction with USAid.
In the program, five Palestinian farmers were selected to receive financial support and guidance in establishing upgraded strawberry facilities on 0.3-hectares’ worth of their own agricultural land, explained Samir Moaddi, the Agriculture Ministry’s agricultural coordinator for Judea and Samaria and the agricultural staff officer of the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria.
The five farmers were selected based on their experience in strawberry cultivation and the commitment to generate results, Moaddi said.
The civil administration contributed NIS 300,000 to the project, in order to purchase all the necessary strawberry shoots for the farmers, Moaddi explained. These shoots, he said, came from the Romano Nursery, which won the supply bid.
Meanwhile, USAid contributed the funds necessary to purchase computerized watering systems and other infrastructure associated with the strawberry farms.
Focusing on strawberries is particularly of interest to the civil administration, because it is an agricultural sector that does not require a huge amount of workers but can generate the growers a sizable sum of money, according to Moaddi.
“The goal is to support Palestinian agriculture in the economy,” Moaddi said.
After the project began in June, Shakri said he prepared his land from June through August, and began planting the seedlings he received in September.
About two months ago, he began harvesting the fruit.
“I tell the computer when and how to irrigate,” he said.
Compared to another 0.3-hectare plot of land in which he also cultivates strawberries – but without the technological and infrastructural upgrade – Shakri said that the new area has a much more productive yield.
“The project is not just succeeding – it is profitable,” Moaddi said.
In a recent meeting with the management of the Osher Ad supermarket chain, Moaddi said he has received a commitment that the store would be purchasing the strawberries produced on those 1.5 hectares.
Acknowledging that 1.5 hectares worth of support might not be a lot, he stressed that the project “gives them the tools to develop” – the ability to make further advancements.
Moaddi said that he has requested a new budget of NIS 500,000 to expand the project and include more farmers, but he has not yet received confirmation as to whether the budget will gain approval.
Cooperation on the agricultural level is longstanding between West Bank Palestinians and Israelis, with some 10 study-tour groups – about 1,200 farmers – coming to Israel each year, according to Moaddi. Already at the end of January, he will be accompanying a group of 50 Palestinians to the Arava Open Day agricultural exposition at the Yair Research and Development Center in Hatzeva.
“The Palestinian population is hungry for knowledge,” Moaddi said.
About 60 percent of West Bank Palestinian produce is sold to the Israeli market each year, while some 200,000 tons of Israeli produce is sold in the opposite direction, Moaddi said.