Jordan Valley kibbutz leading return to nature

A world leader in innovative organic farming, one kibbutz still maintains its 1939 collective model.

kibbutz collective 521 (photo credit: PETRA VAN DER ZANDE)
kibbutz collective 521
(photo credit: PETRA VAN DER ZANDE)
For decades now, a small religious kibbutz in Israel’s northern Jordan Valley has been a world leader in innovative organic farming techniques that increase yields and protect nature. A recent bio-tour of Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu (Field of Elijah), just south of Beit She’an, revealed just how much positive impact this modest Orthodox farming community has had in Israel and worldwide.
Sde Eliyahu was founded in 1939 by a group of religious German-Jewish youths escaping the Nazi menace. The rolling plains around Beit She’an are home to 32 natural springs, which drew farmers into the area; but back then they also fed malaria-infested swamps in the oppressively hot summer months. Instead of draining the swamps, the pioneers used the saline water to breed fish that ate the mosquito larvae.
Today, Sde Eliyahu is one of the approximately 50 kibbutzim and moshavim in Israel which still function on the collective model – the rest are either partially or totally privatized.
Three times a day, the 260 members (160 households) take their meals in the communal dining hall, which serves as the heart of the community. As the local saying goes, “all roads lead to the dining room.” Also believing in the value of spiritual food, the kibbutz boasts a modern Orthodox synagogue which is built higher than the dining room.
The kibbutz provides all the workers’ needs – housing, food, clothing, medical care and education. The CEO of the factory and the dishwasher in the dining hall both receive the same allowance.
Before joining the kibbutz in 1941, Mario Levy studied agriculture at the Mikveh Israel School near Holon. Upon arrival, the “expert” farmer was instantly put in charge of the field crops. Levy wanted to work the land while also safeguarding nature. He found it difficult to use conventional farming methods for that time, such as pesticides and poisons which harmed both nature and humans.
In 1974, Levy became a pioneer in organic farming by creating a chemicalfree zone of vegetables around the kibbutz. After a long, uphill battle, eventually other farmers and the Agriculture Ministry realized that organic farming was the answer to the dilemma of needing ever stronger pesticides. Levy taught them to work with nature instead of against it. Even weeds helped the farmer – not only by preventing evaporation, but often the bugs ate the weeds instead of the vegetables. In the end Levy founded the Israel Organic Organization, which today supervises and certifies all Israeli organic produce.
The next major innovator at Sde Eliyahu was Shauli Aviel, who became the leader of a biofriendly project to win the war on rodents, which were damaging 35 percent of the collective’s crops. This forced farmers to use stronger poisons to combat the scourge. But the remedy did not solve the problem, it o n l y contaminated the ground water and plant roots, and killed migrating birds that normally ate the rodents.
In 1983, Aviel suggested turning to barn owls and placed 14 nesting boxes in the kibbutz fields and nearby orchards. His research had shown that one owl couple killed an average of 2,000 to 5,000 rats and mice per year. Aviel also installed nesting boxes for the lesser kestrel. The use of both night and day predator birds ensured an around-the-clock solution to the rodent plague. This small project grew into a national and eventually regional project. Of the 3,000 nesting boxes across Israel today, 50 are in Sde Eliyahu.
Together with Dr. Yossi Leshem from Tel Aviv University, Aviel also launched a regional cooperation project with Palestinian and Jordanian farmers to make use of the barn owl and lesser kestrel, which thereby replaced the dove as ambassador of peace in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, flocks of starlings damaged many a winter wheat crop, until a kibbutz member suggested to combat them with kites, a bird of prey which was lured to the fields by a simple pile of chicken-feed. The kites kept the starlings and sparrows away, employing another bio-friendly way to protect crops.
Such successes have allowed Sde Eliyahu to remain the only Israeli kibbutz which continues to makes a living primarily from agriculture. Even their efforts to diversify with industrial ventures are farming-related: Bio-Bee, Bio-Fly and SDA-Spice.
Since 1983, Bio-Bee Biological Systems has been an innovative company which mass-produces natural enemies for biological pest control and bumblebees for natural pollination in greenhouses and open fields. The Bio-Bee staff consists of specialists in biology, entomology and plant protection.
A ground-based bumblebee colony consists of the founder queen, worker bees, pupae, larva and eggs. The queen can live for one year, but the worker bees usually die after 5-to-10 weeks. As most greenhouse flowers lack nectar, sugar water and pollen are provided as food for the bee colony.
Unlike honeybees, bumblebees are not aggressive and do not swarm. This makes it possible for them to work alongside humans. Conditions deemed unworkable for honeybees – such as clouds, wind, cold or drizzle – do not bother bumblebees. So the kibbutz company Bio-Bee sells farmers an established hive of 100-150 bumblebees for use during the pollination season.
Ever since Israeli tomato growers began to use bumblebees for pollination, the yield of their crop has increased by more than 25%. Today, all Israeli tomato farmers make use of bumblebee colonies.
Many Israeli strawberry farmers are also using Bio-Bee bumblebees to pollinate their plants, with the fruit bearing the Bio-Tut sticker.
Farmers using bees for pollination can no longer use pesticides, at least during the pollination season. They have to revert to biological pest control, which can also be purchased through the Bio- Bee company.
In 1973, Ya’akov, an entomologist from Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, began researching and developing predatory and parasitic insects in the community bomb shelters. Today, different insects are mass produced in green houses and sold as biological pest control. Most organic farmers use such Integrated Pest Management (IPM). Some still use chemical fertilizer and/or weed killers but switch to biological control the moment the fruit and vegetables appear. The resulting crops grown with reduced pesticide use are healthier and cheaper.
In 2004, Bio-Bee launched a spin-off company called Bio-Fly, which mass produces sterile males of the Mediterranean fruit fly – a major regional pest. Using sterile insect techniques, the males are released and mate with the females, who continue to lay eggs inside the fruit. However, because the eggs do not develop, the fruit does not rot. The sterile Med-flies are now being used in another joint Israeli- Jordanian project in the Arava, with both sides profiting from the venture.
Bio-Fly is the only privately owned sterile insect producing company in the world, as all other SIT projects are government owned.
Meantime, nine varieties of date palms are grown in Sde Eliyahu’s organic date orchards. A herd of semi-wild donkeys keep the weeds at bay.
The founding members also succeeded in growing six of the seven species mentioned in the Bible as native to the land of Israel – wheat, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates, all except for barley.
For more than 40 years, the religious pioneers at Sde Eliyahu have continued to plow new ground in organic farming.
And Mario Levy, now 89 years old, continues to tend his organic vegetable plots on the Field of Eliyahu.
Petra van der Zande is a Dutch Christian author who has self-published 14 books. She and her husband Wim have lived in Jerusalem since 1989.