Families return to the roots

Allotment projects, like the one in Kfar Saba, bring healthy organic food to the masses.

organic vegetables 88 29 (photo credit: )
organic vegetables 88 29
(photo credit: )
With small rake in hand, 12-year old Dan Cohen of Kfar Saba is busily removing weeds around his family's 100-meter plot of fruits and vegetables. All smiles, the youngster is clearly enjoying himself. Most kids his age would more likely be hanging out in a shopping mall, but young Dan was togged out in his boots, blissfully immersed. Pointing proudly to his bed of celery, sweet-peas and lavender, he has an answer to the obvious question from today's stereotypical urbanite. "I love working here and what's more, we're growing our own food without using poison," he says.
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Dan is clearly familiar with the words "insecticide" and "pesticide." "Poison is what the chemical companies sell to farmers and if it's not good for pests and bugs, they're probably not too good for us as well," he explains. Kfar Saba boasts the only non-commercial municipal allotment project in Israel. The 'Organic Garden Allotment Circle' was initiated two years ago by Dan's Welsh-born mother Lisa Cohen, who is also Director of the Sharon Branch of The Council for a Beautiful Israel. According to Cohen, the municipalities of Holon, Hod Hasharon, Ra'anana and Petah Tikva are keen to start similar programs. An allotment is a small area of land, let out at a nominal rent by local government or independent allotment association for individuals to grow their own food. The allotment system began in 18th century Britain - a 1732 engraving of Birmingham shows the town encircled by allotments, some of which still exist today. By law in Britain, a local government is required to maintain an "adequate provision" of land, usually a large field that can be subdivided into allotment gardens for individual residents at a low rent, for the production of fruit or vegetables for consumption by the plotholders and their families. In the 19th and early 20th century, the allotment system supplied much of the fresh vegetables eaten by Britain's poor and by 1918 there were around 1,500,000 plots. Numbers peaked again after the World War II, but have steadily dropped since and the number dropped below 265,000. The rapid growth of the organic food market in recent years has halted this decline. "In addition to the enjoyment of growing one's own fruits, vegetables, spices and herbs, there's the bonus that it's all organic," Cohen extols. Organic produce is grown without any interference of chemicals or non-natural substances. "As there are no pesticides to keep the insects away or herbicides to keep the weeds at bay, organic farming is clearly a lot of work. That's why if can visit our organic farm, most days of the week you will see people busy on their plots," says Cohen. Thirty families presently rent plots, and there is plenty land for more. Each new member of the Organic Garden Allotment Circle rents a 100-sq. meter allotment for NIS 200 a month, or a 50 sq. meter plot for NIS 100. Members receive a free supply of compost for improving soil quality, the services of an agricultural instructor from the Organic Agricultural Association, insurance, a tap for watering produce with a watering can and a key that allows free access at any time. All the plots are served by an automatic drip irrigation system, individually set by the agricultural instructor. While every member receives a seasonal guidance chart, they are free to decide for themselves what to grow and are responsible for the entire process including preparing the beds, sowing, planting, toiling and weeding. "The real treat is being able to take home fruit and vegetables that truly taste like fruit and vegetables," says Raz Josef, an electrical engineer who waxes lyrical on the joys of organic farming. "Most the produce you buy in supermarkets taste of chemicals - it's garbage," he scoffs. One of the project's original members, Josef says that apart from the obvious health benefits there are other enriching spin-offs. "I come here often with my family. It's an opportunity for us to spend quality time together connecting with nature and mixing with wonderful people who we would not normally meet. We are also constantly learning from each other. We taste their tomatoes, they try our strawberries and so on. The name of the game here is cross-pollination." In the late afternoon, a vibrant amalgam of all ages is attired in dungarees, T-shirts and rubber boots. Armed with picks, shovels, spades and rakes, they project the nostalgic image of a bygone age. The colorful patchwork of their labor stretches to a battle-line where it meets the advance of urban development no less vigorous, as if ready to pounce on their land to build more apartment blocks. In the middle of this pictorial clash, The Center for Environmental Studies in Kfar Saba, home to the organic allotment farm, stands as a beacon of defiance and enlightenment. Behind the open trunk of his van full of farming paraphernalia, the Center's director, Izhar Ostrovsky relates how tough the struggle has been to preserve this relic of the past to educate future generations of youngsters. Ostrovsky is in a metaphoric sense a shomer - a guard of Israel's pioneering past - protecting this oasis against the advancing sprawl of unrelenting urbanization. When he heard four years ago that the Kfar Saba municipality was planning to sell off the land for development, he moved into high gear and established a non-profit organization to protect it. Ostrovsky was well suited to the task. A descendent of one of the oldest families in Kfar Saba, the Ostrovskys emigrated from Kiev in the Ukraine in 1903 and settled in what was then a rural outpost. He attended Kfar Saba's first school, Ushiskin, in the 1940s, "where all the children learnt agriculture. In those days every family in Kfar Saba lived on a plot of land where they cultivated their own produce. Fathers could hardly earn enough to sustain their families, so it was essential that we grew our own vegetables and fruit. What we learnt at school we applied in our gardens. That was the system of survival in those days." In time Kfar Saba would evolve from an agricultural village to a typical Israeli urban environment where open space for agriculture was fast disappearing. "Displaying foresight, mayor Ze'ev Geller allocated this land for schools' use some 26 years ago, so that kids would still have the opportunity to learn agriculture in a fast changing world. To this day, some 1,000 schoolchildren come here every week as part of their school curriculum. The main thing they learn is that fruit and vegetables come from the ground and not supermarkets." He is smiling, but hardly joking. The relatively recent addition of organic farming has elevated the stature of the Center, attracting wide media interest. While the word "organic" enjoys a boutique image supported by the high price of its foodstuffs in stores and supermarkets, there is nothing unique about organic farming. It was the standard method prior to the period following the Second World War when chemical companies began pushing their products. "We know that organic food today is expensive and that's why we want to encourage people to grow their own and popularize the health advantages," says Cohen. "Increased awareness will lead to a greater demand and eventually force prices down." Growing ones own organic produce is becoming a popular pastime globally, she notes. "In Britain today, many of the growers are yuppies - a shift from old folk in wooly hats." Here in Israel, the trend is beginning to catch on. "Five other towns have sought our expertise to get them started on similar projects. The more interest we can generate, the more people will realize the health dangers of what they buy and eat. Why do you think there is such a high incidence of cancer these days? Hardly a family is untouched." Cohen, who holds a Masters degree in Environmental Recourse Management from Manchester University, makes a strong connection between the runaway usage of chemicals in farming and the dramatic increase in cancer, describing it as "a plague." "We are consumers of chemicals. We drink it in our water, eat it on our food and breathe it in the air. People need to get a grip of their lives - their bodies - and start asking questions. The chemicals that are administered to livestock are disgusting. From day one, they are on antibiotics and hormones. Is it surprising our bodies react the way they do?" The problem, explains Cohen, is people's perceptions. "While purchasing their fruit and vegetables, consumers are also buying into the market claptrap that 'what looks good is good.' They look for uniformity. Everything must look perfectly the same. We are in the age where fashion determines how we judge anything from women to tomatoes. Organic products do not all look the same and may come in funny shapes and different sizes. A recent organic farming magazine had on its cover a carrot shaped like a hand. What's wrong with that, particularly if it tastes delicious and is perfectly healthy? Organic farming is a challenge to the chemical companies and they will try anything to discredit it." Cohen speaks from experience. Years ago, when researching her thesis on "Attitudes to Organic Farming," Cohen invited input from the big chemical companies in the UK. They obliged by coming at her with every bit of artillery they could. "They were angry and I was not surprised," she says. She cites the experience of the guru of modern environmentalism, renowned marine biologist Rachel Carson, who, in the early 1960s, published her monumental book Silent Spring. "She was the first to reveal that pesticides such as DDT and other chemicals used to enhance agricultural productivity were also poisoning lakes, rivers, oceans and ourselves. Her meticulous description of how DDT entered the food chain causing cancer and genetic damage unleashed a howl of indignation from the chemical industry." Typical attacks came in the shape of scare-mongering, like the executive from the America Cyanamid Company who wrote, "If man were to faithfully follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages where insects, diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth." As Cohen points out, rather than a return to the Dark Ages, Carson shocked Americans by revealing the darker side of science. One of the landmark books of the 20th century, Silent Spring's message resonates today no less than it did several decades ago. This is evident in the increasing number of people prepared to pay dearly for organic produce in stores. Rather than dip too deeply into your wallet, you may want to grow your own organic food and enjoy the experience. Before deciding to join the Organic Garden Allotment Circle, Cohen suggests a visit to the farm. The composition of membership is varied. "We have a fair number of people in stressed-out jobs - lawyers, doctors, a TV producer and people in hi-tech. They come after work and enjoy the fresh air and exercise of working in the fields. It's cheaper than going to a therapist," she laughs. To arrange an appointment call Izhar Osrovsky, Director of 'The Center for Environmental Studies on Kfar Saba Farm' at 09-7674624 or [email protected]