Surveying the land

After a summer of war and heading into 'shmita,' Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir assures Israelis there will be no shortage of produce this year.

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October 7, 2014 10:26
Gaza conflict

Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir speaks to soldiers in the Eshkol region during this summer’s conflict with Gaza.. (photo credit: JEVGENIYA KRAVCHIK)

 
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In the aftermath of a summer that rattled Israel’s southern fields, and as the country’s farmers prepare to observe the shmita year, Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir said he is confident Israelis will not face fruit and vegetable shortages in the year to come.

“The shmita rules are that every seven years you have to give the land one year to relax,” Shamir told The Jerusalem Post in a recent interview at his office in Beit Dagan. “Even scientifically, it’s a good process.

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Unfortunately, economically, it’s almost impossible.

Now the question is, how do you solve this?” When the Jewish new year kicked off two weeks ago, so too did the shmita year – the agricultural sabbatical that occurs every seven years, as mandated by the Torah. During the year, the Land of Israel is supposed to remain fallow, though rabbinic interpretations beginning in the 1900s determined that Jewish farmers could temporarily sell their land to a non-Jew, through a procedure called heter mechira, and continue to farm it themselves. While many religious Jews still rely on this determination, the country’s haredim (ultra- Orthodox) will eat only fruits and vegetables imported from abroad during the year.

“As long as there is enough fruit and vegetables in the market, nobody will care and nobody will remember,” Shamir said. “But for the religious sector, it’s a different ballgame and quite a complicated one.”

The heter mechira policy, determined by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook in 1910, came to fruition after a particularly difficult harvest year. While many speculate that Kook may have only intended for heter mechira to apply to that year, the process ultimately became a permanent solution, the minister explained.

“In the religious sector, there are some people who accept this solution and others who don’t,” he said.

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For those who do not, the solution is to import fruits and vegetables for specific community needs, from countries like Jordan, Egypt and Turkey, according to Shamir. Although this automatically makes those crops more expensive, the government enables haredi importers to bring in specific quantities tax-free, he said. The importers select the fruit and vegetable sources, but they must receive approval from Plant Protection Services to ensure that the quality is up to par with Israeli standards.

Meanwhile, Shamir stressed that every single farm in Israel must abide by the heter mechira rules. Every farmer in the country must submit forms to the Chief Rabbinate on the subject and appear before a committee, guaranteeing that there will be no violation of kashrut laws.

“Each farmer has to report what happened to all the quantities that are grown and harvested,” Shamir said.

Some parts of modern Israel, such as much of the Arava desert, are not actually considered part of the Land of Israel, and growth can continue as normal there. A sliver of modern Jordan, on the other hand, is considered part of the biblical Land of Israel, and crops grown in that territory would be off limits in the eyes of the haredim.

Some religious groups who are satisfied to purchase fruits and vegetables from Arab-Israeli farmers, despite the fields falling within the Land of Israel – as they are owned by non-Jews – sign exclusivity agreements with one particular farm, Shamir explained. In doing so, the Arab-Israeli farmer makes a commitment that no Jews will operate on his farm, and all vegetables and fruits sold to the buyer will come from that farm only, he said. The exclusivity is accompanied by higher prices, and some of the importers go so far as to request that cameras be installed and mashgichim, or kashrut supervisors, be present on the fields, Shamir added.

“Each section of the Orthodox community has its own rules,” he said.

“We have to enable all of them to at least get the food that they need, and we are helping them to reduce the cost.”

Due to the higher prices associated with imported fruits and vegetables, despite the tax waiver, Shamir posited that some of the poorest segments of the haredi community may end up relying primarily on cheaper produce like potatoes and carrots for the year.

He stressed, however, that he does not “foresee any problem of supply because of the shmita.”

LIKEWISE, HE said, the country’s overall fruit and vegetable supply has remained intact in the aftermath of a summer-long war that ravaged the South – and its fields – with rocket fire.

“The public will not feel any shortage because of the war,” Shamir said.

No scarcities have occurred, he explained, because in the scheme of the country’s entire agricultural sector, the amount of crops grown in the Gazan perimeter area is still a small percentage. In addition, when an emergency situation occurs, the country is able to temporarily increase imports from nearby countries like Jordan, he added.

That being said, Shamir stressed that the damage to southern farms was significant. Those located within three kilometers of the Gazan border in particular will require a few years to recover, he said. Many of these fields, he explained, experienced a lot of damage and were “turned into powder” as the army tanks rolled over them.

All of the repairs – rebuilding greenhouses and cowsheds, restoring the ground, repairing damaged infrastructure and access roads – will cost in the region of NIS 200 million, the minister said. Many chicken coops were also damaged, and in light of the holiday season, eggs are currently being imported from Turkey. However, during the Rosh Hashana and Passover peak consumption seasons, Israel always imports eggs and other products from Turkey and other countries to some extent, he explained.

SHAMIR ALSO commented on various threats from European countries to launch boycotts on products grown in the West Bank and on the Golan Heights.

At first, European importers were satisfied with seeing “Middle East” written on the labels of fruits and vegetables, which eventually changed to writing “Israel,” he explained. Then they demanded more specific origin locations, like indicating that the crops were grown in the West Bank or on the Golan Heights. Interestingly enough, dates grown in the Jordan Valley do not have to be specially marked – which Shamir attributed to the popularity of these unique dried fruits.

Regarding all of these rules, Shamir said the Israeli government tries to keep the discussions at as low a level as possible in the European Union, in a non-political forum.

“But as years go by the politicians who have this interest raise it up and up,” he lamented.

Fueling the fire have been the anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian demonstrations in the United Kingdom and France in particular, and instances in which people have thrown kosher products out of shops – including those that do not even hail from Israel, Shamir added.

“In certain parts of Europe it has become anti-Jews, not just anti-Israel,” he said.

Some products that used to be exported, like Jordan Valley herbs, are now largely being absorbed into the local market, while herbs from Israel proper are being exported in their place.

One particular arena that has become challenging is the dairy products sector, as the sources of the milk powders, cheeses and butters are a bit tricky to determine once they are mixed together in a Tnuva factory, according to Shamir.

Officials are therefore in the process of determining how to build infrastructure and storage in such a way that milk from different origins would not mix.

In talks with EU representatives, Shamir said he and his colleagues have stressed how Palestinian workers are actually involved with cultivating Israeli agriculture in the West Bank. As far as the Golan Heights are concerned, he simply remarked, “Do you want me to give the Golan Heights to ISIS [Islamic State]?” “We are looking for other markets, alternatives for our exports,” Shamir said.

Some such alternatives, where Israel is already selling some of its produce, include Russia, China, Vietnam, Taiwan and several African nations, he explained. Meanwhile, if Europeans want to boycott Israeli products, the government here can “push the chain in Israel not to buy from Europe” – the major source of Israel’s imports, Shamir added.

Yet the minister emphasized that Israel is not yet at the point where it will go to battle on the issue.

“We are not trying to fight it because we don’t want the fire to be bigger than it should,” he said.

Gesturing to a bowl of red, seedless grapes on his table – that are about to be commercialized from Volcani Institute labs – Shamir praised the new product’s firmer texture and slightly less sweet taste.

“We are looking to renovate our agricultural products in a way that we will have unique products, so that the Europeans and all others who want this product can buy it only here,” he said.

“And then, a lot will be different. Once we have to compete on the market, and somebody puts a stigma on us, then it’s much more difficult to compete.

Just the quality and price is not good enough.”

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