Agriculture looks for innovative ways to sell

While the 7 species - dates, pomegranates, olives, grapes, figs, wheat and barley - are the traditional Tu Bishvat fodder, Israeli companies are finding that the real money is to be made in producing nontraditional versions of these foods.

figs 88 (photo credit: )
figs 88
(photo credit: )
Even as local markets display abundant selections of dried fruits for consumers to enjoy this Tu Bishvat, Israel's farmers and exporters say not enough is being done to promote the great yields and quality of the country's agriculture, including the shivat haminim, or seven species of fruits and crops mentioned in the Torah as indigenous to the Land. In 2005, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, Israel exported $41 million worth of dates, $16m. of fresh grapes, $1.8m. of pomegranates and $1.2m. figs, while olive oil exports totaled $3.36m. and wine, a derivative of grapes, accounted for $14m. The strong figures displayed by the date industry can be attributed to innovations in growing and marketing that have pushed the success of the age-old business. "Ten years ago, supermarkets would sell dates only during Christmas," said Chezi Almog, spokesman for Hadiklaim, the date grower's association. Today, however, he noted that they are available year-round, an accomplishment credited to the marketing of the date as a healthy, fresh and exotic fruit. Yet, while the seven species - dates, pomegranates, olives, grapes, figs, wheat and barley - are the traditional Tu Bishvat fodder, Israeli companies are finding that the real money is to be made in producing nontraditional versions of these foods. Items such as pomegranate seed oil, low-calorie dates, flash pasteurized kosher wines and health products derived from pomegranates are making great strides in world markets, while the less complicated agriculture products-fresh grapes, pomegranate juice and figs to name a few-aren't finding much room for growth in exports, they say. Among the innovations in growing dates has been the "light date," called Hayani, which has half the sugar and calories of other varieties, and is part of a trend toward healthier foods. "The new trend is growing 'whole' foods, with only one ingredient," Almog said, noting that unlike other dried fruits, dates don't require any preservatives. "We are selling more dates because of it." Almog said the light dates are being launched under the slogan "fresh all year round" in southern Spain, where fresh dates sell well, but they could be sold elsewhere if they prove successful. Despite the success of Israeli dates in the world market, however, exports of dried fruits and vegetables as a whole have dropped 24 percent from a year ago, according to Efrat Cohen, head of the economic department at the Israel Export and International Cooperation Institute. Wine, on the other hand, has taken a dramatic upturn, with exports rising 17% over the five years since 2001. Shiki Rauchberger, winemaker of Efrat Winery, Israel's fourth largest winery, said this was because Israeli wines are expanding beyond the Jewish market, producing higher-quality kosher wines by new flash pasteurization techniques along with non-kosher wine. "Today wine is also exported for the general market since Israel became a quality wine producer," Rauchberger said. These improved wines increasingly are winning medals in global competitions and are being presented at exhibitions, with growers and producers learning how to make wine from places around the world, according to Rauchberger. "The change of quality has opened doors," he said. In contrast to dates, which are a simple fruit with little demands, pomegranate products require complicated processes and often prove too expensive to export even though they have become the rave around the world in recent years in light of their claimed anti-oxidant health benefits. Itamar Sternberg, business developer for Shalev-Sternberg, noted that the company had stopped exporting pure pomegranate juice because production was too costly but he was hopeful that new innovations in extracting the juice would help to restart exports. "The character of the fruit makes it hard to produce a sweet juice," Sternberg said. The company has developed a machine that divides the skin from the seeds, but it results in an expensive end product, which can cost consumers up to $8 for a 500 milliliter bottle. "It's really healthy, but people aren't willing to pay that much." The real future of the pomegranate is likely in health products, and Sternberg's company also sells pomegranate seed oil used in some skin care products, which is expensive but sells well as a luxury health care product in Europe, especially. He predicts pomegranate products will do well in the future if the health-conscious trend continues. Another twist on the pomegranate is produced in the Upper Galilee, in the form of three types of wine. The Rimon Winery, which offers dry, dessert and port-style wines made from very sweet fruit, recognized the wine-making potential of the sugary variety of the fruit and in 2002 started to experiment with wine making. It started selling the first pomegranate wine in 2005 and has had tremendous interest and success exporting it to the US and Asia.