The president knows his onions

The knowledge Peres gleaned as a kibbutznik was patently obvious when met a delegation from the Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.

Peres speaks 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Peres speaks 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The agriculture portfolio is not among the many posts held by President Shimon Peres during his long and distinguished political career. However as a young man, Peres was a kibbutznik, and the knowledge that he gleaned about fruits and vegetables has not deserted him. This was patently obvious on Thursday when a delegation from the Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association presented him with four baskets of luscious fruits and vegetables, in line with the commandment in Leviticus 23. Since there is no longer a high priest and a Temple in Jerusalem to which farmers should bring their harvest offerings, the recipient of the first fruits of the harvest of the seven species is the head of state, namely the president. The first fruits are traditionally delivered on the eve of Shavuot, which will be celebrated tonight. Peres examined the produce, tested the quality, asked pertinent questions, noted changes in texture, color size and shape, and after biting into several items, pronounced them to be very tasty. He was particularly interested in new species and strains of tomatoes, peppers, pumpkin and lettuce, especially the decorative mini- varieties, and was quite fascinated by miniature pumpkins. Shimshon Omer, who was representing the Agriculture Ministry, said the idea was to make produce look more attractive to the consumer; the more attractive they look, the more likely they are to end up on the tables of the citizenry, he said. As was noted by several farmers in the delegation, per capita consumption of fruit and vegetables is much higher in Israel than in Europe. The produce was brought by growers from all over the country, including the Golan Heights, the western Negev and the Arava. When the farmers were asked whether there was any produce from across the Green Line, the reply was an emphatic "no." Meir Ifrah, secretary-general of the association, told Peres there were 4,000 vegetable growers in Israel producing 2.2 million tons of vegetables annually, of which 1.3 million tons went to the domestic market, 590,000 tons to export and 330,000 tons to industry. Annual per capita consumption is 185 kilograms. Although Israel produces high-quality fruit and vegetables, said Ifrah, it faced severe water shortages, which in turn endangered income potential. There was also a manpower problem in that Israelis didn't want to work in agriculture, Palestinians were generally not allowed to work in Israel, and Thais had to go through an abnormal amount of bureaucratic red tape to secure employment, he said. While government ministers are usually targets for sharp criticism, Ifrah had nothing but praise for Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon, a moshavnik, who he said was the best in the post that Israel had ever had, because he really understood the needs and problems and did his best to find solutions. Standing against a backdrop of a lifelike horse and wagon loaded with vintage milk cans and farming equipments, a lifelike sheep, clusters of grapes and baskets and urns of fruit, Peres said Israel was the perpetual champion in the "vegetable Olympics." Although Israel was small, he said, and despite its problems, it could do a lot to stave off world hunger. "What the Volcani Institute [of Agriculture in Beit Dagan] has contributed to Israeli agriculture is nothing short of amazing," Peres said. The problem of scarce water was not that of Israel alone, he said, adding, "It's a regional crisis and we don't have much time left in which to replenish water supplies."