Seeking to help farmers diversify their income, the Agriculture Ministry has launched a course to train farmers in eco-tourism. The pilot class started this week and includes 20 farmers from the Galilee and the Golan.
As it becomes more difficult to make a living off agriculture, more farmers have turned to tourism to supplement their income. Taking advantage of their rural setting, the farmers want to cash in on the world's hunger for ecologically friendly enterprises. The ministry hopes that by combining environmentally sound agriculture with green tourism, farmers will be able to remain on the land.
"Agri-rural tourism is one of the major leverages that the rural regions have to offer," said Shai Dotan, director of the ministry's agricultural-tourism development project. "The goals of the course are to assist the residents of Israel's rural areas to adjust to the changes that are taking place in Israel's agricultural sector."
The course has seven full-day sessions, each taking place in one of the participants' farms. The participants learn about different methods to make their farm an eco-friendly environment, focusing on things such as water conservation, energy production, organic gardening and recycling.
"In the past I've attended many courses that taught the principles of environmental farming, but I always left with the feeling that I don't know how to begin," said Miri Falach, counseling director of the ministry's Galilee and Golan districts. "This course is different, because it doesn't only teach the principles, it gives participants the opportunity to gain hands-on experience of the things they learn. Next week, for example, we will be teaching the participants how to set up and maintain an organic garden. The week after that we will work on installing a water-recycling plant."
Falach came up with the idea to offer the course, and many of the topics covered are already in practice on her farm on Moshav Had-Nes in the Golan Heights.
"I have several cottages on my property and I felt terrible about the amount of water that goes to waste," Falach said. "My home overlooks the Kinneret, and I can plainly see what the water shortage has done to the lake level.
"To think that every tourist who comes to stay fills the Jacuzzi, and that the water then goes to waste, seemed like a real shame," she said. "So I decided to collect the drained water and water my garden with it."
Falach said she often gets funny looks for her sustainability-promoting actions, but she hopes that others will catch on soon.
"There are 120 farms on my moshav, and I'm the only one to take any action on this front," she said. "But I believe that there is a real potential here for growth."
While environmental tourism may not be a top priority for Israelis, Falach said, when it comes to the international market, there is a growing demand.
"I can only hope that Israel follows this trend the same as it does others," she said. "Maybe in a few years people here will also take environmental considerations into account when choosing a place to spend their vacations. We think this course will help prepare people for that day."
The ministry's rural-development branch hopes to eventually set up a ranking system to evaluate the levels of sustainability of each farm, Falach said, adding: "In the same way hotels have star rankings, we'll have leaf rankings or something like that."
The course is also being supported by the Israel Farmers Federation. Federation chairman Avshalom Vilan, a former Meretz MK, said he supports the ministry's efforts to promote tourism in the rural areas because farmers can no longer rely on agricultural production alone.
"This doesn't replace agriculture, but it can definitely supplement it," Vilan said. "We have seen this phenomenon pick up momentum in the last 10 years and have been involved in similar efforts ourselves."
The course is being subsidized by the ministry and costs NIS 850. If the pilot proves successful, there are plan to hold the course in other parts of the country.