Beersheba ‘Ecotopia' fetes Ethiopian urban farming

The Kalisher Absorption Center showcased the colorful fruits and vegetables of its Ethiopian immigrant gardeners.

June 2, 2013 04:21
3 minute read.
Greens on sale at Beersheba's Ecotopia

Beersheba farmers' market370. (photo credit: Katherine Martinelli )

Transforming an urban center into an agricultural oasis, the Beersheba Kalisher Absorption Center showcased the colorful fruits and vegetables of its Ethiopian immigrant gardeners in an Ecotopia Festival on Wednesday evening that attracted some 800 visitors.

The absorption center – run by the Jewish Agency – is home to about 50 plots of community gardens. The immigrant families are the ones who cultivate them, using equipment, irrigation, seedlings, agricultural know-how and pest control provided by local NGO Earth’s Promise, which has been operating since 2007.

Organized by Earth’s Promise and the Jewish Agency in conjunction with the Beersheba Municipality, the fourth annual Ecotopia Festival enabled the families to display their crops and celebrate Ethiopian culture.

Greeting visitors as they arrived was an agricultural oasis of sprawling corn stalks and pumpkin vines, according to Adam Ganson, co-executive director of Earth’s Promise.

In addition to showcasing the fruits of the community’s labor through guided tours, the festival included a traditional Ethiopian gojo home with a photography exhibition inside. Guests could also attend an Ethiopian cooking workshop, while their children made recycled paper artwork within an urban orchard, Ganson told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. A main stage hosted shows from two bands and a DJ, Ethiopian food was distributed for free, and seedlings were on sale.

At the absorption center, each new immigrant family tends to their own garden plot and can grow fruits and vegetables for their own consumption at home, the Jewish Agency explained. In addition to growing Israeli crops, the families raise a variety of traditional Ethiopian vegetables like gomen (a type of lettuce), ma’ashila (a type of corn), doba (a type of pumpkin), barbery (a type of hot pepper), teff (a traditional grain used to make injera flatbread) and zekagbe (a type of basil).

The goal of the community garden setting is to provide the new immigrants with small-scale agriculture that can connect them to their pasts as well as facilitate their absorption into Israel, according to absorption center director Talia Artzi. The center is home to about 320 immigrants.

Families tend to farm their plots when they first move to the country, and afterward “pass on” the plots to newer families as the original families advance further in their careers, explained Ganson, who has been running Earth’s Promise for the past two years with his wife, Moran. A good amount of food-sharing goes on among families as well, he added.

“Our vision is to make this marketable,” he said. “We thought that using urban agriculture as a basis for a local sustainable economy is a good way to keep food sources local.”

In the Gimmel neighborhood near the absorption center where many of the immigrants live, Earth’s Promise is now establishing a type of “local sustainable economy,” in which residents will be able to exchange not only products, but also time – such as taking turns babysitting an hour for each other’s children, Ganson said. The local economy will be making use of the Osher System, which digitally manages the use of an alternative, local currency.

“It’s keeping resources within the neighborhood,” Ganson said.

As part of the local economy, Earth’s Promise has a plot of land, spanning somewhere between 0.6 and 0.8 hectares, that it intends to turn into an urban farm run by a resident farm manager. That farm will be able, for example, to sell tomatoes to the local pub and peppers to the local felafel stand using the neighborhood-only coin, Ganson explained.

“Basically it’s connecting the urban agricultural concept with the local sustainable economy concept,” he said. “The way it connects in our view is that it’s an overarching way to localize food sources.”

Already the group has the Beersheba mayor’s support for this venture, but will be meeting with the municipality on Sunday about the logistics, Ganson added.

Both he and his wife have master’s degrees in environmental fields, and each worked at various green organizations before taking on the co-directorship at Earth’s Promise. While acknowledging that there are many challenges to living in the South, Ganson stressed that “on evenings like [Wednesday] night, it’s really magical, to see the black and white, kids and old folk, local residents and people coming from afar – that really makes it worth it.”

In addition to the activities in Beersheba, Earth’s Promise has community gardens in Ashkelon and Arad and will look to expand into other specific projects that match the organization’s interests in the future.

“We’re making urban agriculture a reality here in Beersheba,” Ganson said.

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