Tropical Fish and Flowers in the Desert?

 Israel’s Arava Desert – Where Fertile Minds Meet Barren Soil
If you’re an adventurous sort of person or just someone interested in seeing some magnificent scenery and learning how people survive and thrive in the desert, Israel’s Arava Desert is the destination for you. In the words of Israel’s late President Shimon Peres: “If, instead of looking back, Lot's wife would have kept going forward, she would have become a daughter of the Arava rather than a pillar of salt." 

A sea horse being bred in a salt water tank in the Central and Northern Arava R&D/Tania SusskindA sea horse being bred in a salt water tank in the Central and Northern Arava R&D/Tania Susskind

The Arava is a desert valley that extends from the Dead Sea to Eilat, along Israel's border with Jordan. The closest urban community is 130 km away, which makes the Arava one of the most peripheral regions in the country. Although the Arava is 175 kilometers long - quite large for a small country like Israel - only 14,000 people live here, due to the harsh desert climate. Most Arava residents rely on farming or tourism for a living, and it’s KKL-JNF's know-how that helps them survive in this breathtaking but challenging environment.

Modern-day settlement of the Arava began some sixty years ago, when some people of vision, who were also sincere and determined Zionists in the true sense of the word, decided to make their home here. Today, it's hard to believe that the farmers of the Arava produce more than half of Israel's agricultural exports, and have transformed an ancient spice route into an internationally acclaimed model of cutting-edge desert agriculture. And, as any Arava resident you ask would be happy to tell you, without KKL-JNF, this fantasy could never have become a reality.


The Secret of Arava Agriculture

Besides the determination of the local residents, what makes agriculture in the Arava possible are two local research and development stations - the Central and Northern Arava R&D, which operates the Yair Experimental Station in Moshav Hatseva in the Central Arava Regional Council; and the Southern Arava R&D in Kibbutz Yotvata in the Eilot Regional Council. Together with its friends worldwide, KKL-JNF is a full partner to the innovative research being done at the R&D stations, which study how to utilize the Arava’s natural potential for agriculture in terms of climate, soil and varieties of water sources.

Bird's eye view of the Central and Northern Arava R&D Station/Tania SusskindBird's eye view of the Central and Northern Arava R&D Station/Tania Susskind

Water? Did we just say water sources? The Southern Arava R&D Station, for example, operates in the most arid area in Israel, so the only sources of water are brackish water from drills or desalinated water that is either pumped in or produced locally. At the Southern Arava R&D, two main solutions for using brackish water for agriculture are being studied: cultivating plants that thrive on brackish water, and diluting brackish water with desalinated water.

It is thanks to the technology developed by the R&D stations that farmers are able to farm sustainably in these unique conditions. Local crops include vegetables such as peppers, tomatoes, squash and even strawberries, grapes, dates, olives, organic agriculture, and more.

In the words of Dafna Harari of the Central Arava Research and Development Station: “Farmers are a hopelessly optimistic type of people, they are always sure that new crops will be successful – if not this season, then the next season.”

And talking about water, here’s another idea: Arava scientists have been looking into the possibility of taking advantage of microalgae that can be found in the Arava’s brackish water. The idea is to produce spirulina, a blue-green algae that can be consumed by humans and animals. It is used as a dietary supplement as well as a whole food, boasts a very high nutritional value, and is in demand worldwide. Most importantly - spirulina just loves the light intensity and heat of the Arava. At least something does!

Produce grown at Moshav Hatzeva in the Central Arava/KKL-JNF Photo ArchiveProduce grown at Moshav Hatzeva in the Central Arava/KKL-JNF Photo Archive

Cold-loving Peonies in the Hottest Place in Israel

What next? How about flowers in the desert? The stark landscape of the Arava hardly lends itself to imagining colorful flowers of all shapes and sizes blooming in desert greenhouses, but thanks to innovative research sponsored by KKL-JNF, this fantasy has become a reality. According to Ma’ayan Kitron, flower research coordinator at the Central Arava Research and Development Station, about 275 acres of flowers are currently being cultivated here. Peonies, for example, are a flower that loves the cold and are grown in Holland in the cool months leading up to the Dutch summer. The R&D has developed methods of growing them in the more temperate Israeli winter, in order to market them in Europe during the time of year when they are not available.

Here’s what Yuval Yunash, an Arava flower grower, has to say: “The Arava has an advantage because we can grow flowers when most other countries can’t, and the sharp difference in temperature between day and night is also beneficial for many types of flowers. Most of our flowers are exported to Europe and the United States and competition is very stiff. Even though it’s challenging, I love what I do. It’s a combination of maintaining high standards of quality while always being innovative. I am passionate about my work and could go on for hours talking about it. I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”

Flowers and tomatoes growing in the Central Arava R&D/Yoav DevirFlowers and tomatoes growing in the Central Arava R&D/Yoav Devir

Riding a Sea Horse on the Desert Sands

As you may have realized by now, the Arava isn’t exactly the land of a thousand freshwater lakes, but that didn’t daunt creative local farmers and scientists, who figured out how to raise tropical fish and even crocodiles in the Arava. Besides popular aquarium fish, Arava farmers also raise ornamental sea fish such as sea horses, taking advantage of local brackish water pumped up from an underground reservoir. Ornamental fish cultivation began about ten years ago, and now, the Arava has become the dominant player in the production and marketing of tropical fish in Israel, with an 85% market share. Proximity to markets and controlled, disease-free industrial production methods give the Arava an advantage over the Far East.

President Peres and the Prophet Isaiah

Back to President Shimon Peres, who, in his own inimitable fashion, put it this way: "The Arava is a place that shows what the world could be, not what it is. If one were to look for the most unlikely place for agriculture, they would end up in the Arava, where there is no fertile land and no water, but only harsh climatic conditions. The success we see here today was accomplished not by monetary investments, but by investing in people.” 

It would seem that the prophet Isaiah got it exactly right:

“The wilderness and the parched land shall be glad, and the Arava will rejoice and blossom as a rose” (Isaiah 35:1).