Olives in Ramat Hanegev desert? Not only are olives once again growing here - as they did over 3000 years ago - but they are growing in over 5300 dunams. The olive trees are thriving, creating dark green patches, particularly prominent against the background of desert sand. And not one drop of fresh water reaches the roots of these olive trees! Recycled effluents are the appetizer. The main course is brackish water from wells drilled by KKL-JNF at a depth of 700-800 meters beneath the arid ground. In an ancient geological salty aquifer, the temperature of the water is 42 degrees centigrade.
When this water was discovered - after endless attempts to find water in the desert - the farmers were skeptical, because of the very saltiness of the water. At the time, it was thought that water of this kind kills vegetation. A secondary usage was found for it, which was to heat the hothouses that are irrigated with fresh water during the cold season.
Those who continue to realize Ben-Gurion's vision today and transform it into reality are called "the salt of the earth." It turns out that in the Negev, these people, with shared energies, are performing miracles - literally producing fruit and life out of actual salt, that is, salty water.
KKL-JNF invests millions of shekels in research and development, the goal of which is to take advantage of the Negev's natural resources. There is land, there is salty water, there is floodwater and sewage water from the small and few Negev population centers - but that's all! How is it possible to grow anything out of this?
This is the reason that the Center for Experiments in Desert Farming was established in Ramat Hanegev, near Ashalim, on sandy lands. KKL-JNF drilled a brackish water well at an expense of more than seven million shekels, and researchers, scientists, and technicians with vision came together to do some magic.
A visit to the experimental station does something good for the soul. The organic tomato plants, in the ground and on elevated platforms, reach a total length of ten meters and produce fruit over a ten-month growing period. They are all watered with salty water. The percentage of salt varies in order to achieve the most desirable mixture and the results of the experiments that continue to this day can be seen in the field.
Ramat Hanegev farmers produce 15,000 tons of tomatoes in 1000 dunams of hothouses, ranging from organic tomatoes to especially small strains of cherry tomatoes that are sold at a high price to restaurants and hotels throughout the world.
The Ramat Hanegev tomato is noted for being sweeter than its cousins from the central and northern parts of Israel, specifically because it is watered with salty water.
The tomato plants react to the salt and pressure that the salt puts on its cells by producing more sugars. This was the first plant to be successfully grown in salty water with the sophisticated technology that controls the secrets of irrigation and follows changes in the plants and land composition. Work begins with watering the plants several times a day with small amounts of water, tracking the amount of salts accumulating in the earth and following the plant's behavior. Everything is computerized and supervised - even allowing the measurement of plants' "temperature" and "blood pressure."
A seemingly modest device placed alongside the tomato plants is apparatus invented by two engineers, new immigrants from Russia. Not only does it have a small meteorological station that measures heat and air humidity, it also has sensors that measure the heat of the leaves, the rate liquids flow in the leaves - even the behavior of the tomato's central stem, expanding or contracting according to pressure exerted by the liquid.
After the first generation of this computer, the second generation includes cellular on-line communication with the farmer. It allows the farmer to sit at the computer in his house, to receive full and regular data on how his vegetables are doing in his hothouse, and to immediately identify any change that may occur.
Data is extremely significant for this method of growing, allowing farmers to take immediate action - by rinsing - to prevent damage as a result of over-saltiness in the ground or lack of water.
Dense screens that prevent the entry of insects shade the hothouses at the Ramat Hanegev experimental farm. The only insect allowed in - to pollinate the flowers - is a special type of bee that doesn't sting, brought into the hothouses in cardboard beehives. The minute flies smuggling their way in, no bigger than a pinhead, are caught by sticky traps. Special liquid organic fertilizers are introduced into the irrigation system according to a "menu" supervised by exact computer control. Water is also recycled as much as possible.
In Ramat Hanegev, as in an ever-growing number of communities, intensive "Bermundy" fish farms have become popular. The water of the fish breeding pools, rich in organic fertilizers that the fish "produce," is used to irrigate vegetable fields and to grow animal fodder. It also transpired that the cows brought to the Negev from a closed-down cowshed in central Israel, increased their milk production in their new home.