Go organic

Some Israeli farmers are getting back to basics.

organic vegetables 88 (photo credit: )
organic vegetables 88
(photo credit: )
People really like that they can cook their dinner from what they get and not what they know," says farmer Alon Efrati, who runs the Hubeiza organic farm near Latrun. Once a week Efrati, 29, and a handful of other farm workers pick vegetables to fill about 150 boxes destined for families and singles from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. In less than 24 hours from the field, customers can have a fresh box brimming with pickings delivered to the kitchen counter by Avi Levi, an activist with his toes in organic farming, consumer rights and fair trade practices. The catch about the box that Levi hands over every Monday is that no one can know beforehand what it will contain. But this is not just an insane Israeli idea. The surprise "vegetable plan" used in Hubeiza is modeled after what is known as community-supported agriculture, a model developed in Japan in the Sixties. Known in Japanese as teikei, which means "putting the farmer's face on the food," community-supported agriculture was a response to land shortage for food production and poisonings caused by industrial chemicals in Japan. Over the past 35 years, community-supported agriculture has spread to the US and Europe, and now can be found in Israel. Hubeiza claims to be the only farm following this model where subscribers agree to take a regular supply of vegetables as they become ripe in the field. Bat Ami Sorek, who founded the farm two years ago, continues to give newsletter support from her home in San Francisco. The farm is enjoying a near capacity customer base. With its 10 rotating dunams in Kfar Bin-Nun, the farm is large enough to be profitable, yet small enough to keep costs low. By providing all customers with the same selection (that varies from week to week and season to season), handling costs are cut and the value passed to the customer. This approach to farming ensures that what is ripe in the field is more or less guaranteed to be consumed. Cucumbers and tomatoes appear to be the Israeli vegetables of choice, and customers often tell Levi that they don't particularly like spaghetti squash. "My first delivery was exciting. I felt like I'd brought the farm into my house," says Ornitte Nagar from Tel Aviv, who is on a four-week trial with Hubeiza to see if the vegetable plan suits her needs. "I know that the vegetables I'm eating are coming directly from the ground into my kitchen, without going through irradiation, sitting in a warehouse for months, or being shipped halfway around the world," she says. Week One of a trial box delivered to Nagar looked pretty normal, although it included a chunk of squash, which she didn't appear to mind. Inside the box were also cucumbers, avocados, green onions, potatoes (two varieties), romaine lettuce and string beans. The vegetables resembled those found in a greengrocery, were certified clean from pesticide residue, and were farmed in accordance with Jewish halachic directives - critical for religious consumers who observe the special instructions attached to the Land of Israel. One source in a large decision-making organic organization says he believes that certain leafy vegetables and spices are loaded with chemicals in Israel - perhaps more than anywhere else - as Jewish law dictates that it is forbidden for a Jew to eat insects. He says that although the farming of vegetables intended for religious consumers is leaning toward more healthy practices - some companies are using nets to stop insects from munching on the greens - pesticide-treated vegetables such as lettuce continue to pervade the market. Although what looked like tiny leaf miners had eaten some of the Hubeiza parsley and there was a trail left behind on a lettuce stalk by an insect larvae or slug, the veggies otherwise looked pest-free. The weekly box comes in two sizes: A small box (NIS 79) is big enough for two, and the larger box (NIS 100) is suited for a family of four. Customers can also join an every-other-week plan; and if one doesn't like a particular vegetable, Efrati encourages people to swap with others. Those that plan a shared pickup location with others receive a NIS 10 reduction in the NIS 15 delivery charge. Efrati came to the idea of organic farming through agriculture studies at the Hebrew University and after volunteering in a unique South African farm in Morgan's Bay. He has learned, for example, to never plant zucchinis after a crop of cucumbers has been harvested. Chemically speaking, vegetables deplete and restore certain nutrients in the ground. If one wants to grow healthy and strong vegetables that encourage natural pests to stay in the fields, it is crucial to know how plants and vegetables work together. Twice a year, customers and the general public are invited to learn about the farm at an open house "farm day" when they are given a tour of the farm and taught some tricks of the organic agricultural trade. The farm is strictly off limits to visitors on Shabbat and usually on Fridays, when the crew takes its break. For those without much money - and those who love to barter - Efrati is open to exchanging other services, such as farm labor or working on the farm's Internet site in exchange for a box of vegetables. Tel Aviv resident Roni Saslove trades bottles of her family-made organic wine for a box of veggies that her yoga teacher grows on his farm. Every few months, farms like Hubeiza that sell to the public undergo an inspection by one of three certification bodies. In Hubeiza's case, inspectors from AgriOr come every couple of months to ensure that Israel's organic standards are being met. Largely based on those set by the European Union, Israel has had its own set of standards since May, drawn up by the Ministry of Agriculture, that intends to keep local standards up to par with international standards. About 80% of the fresh organic produce grown in Israel will be eaten elsewhere, such as France, Germany, Britain, the US and Eastern Europe. Because companies like AgriOr ensure that organic standards remain very high, the EU defers sending inspectors to check on Israel's export produce. The Hubeiza farm's produce is kept local, to be enjoyed by customers in Jerusalem, Rehovot, Tel Aviv and Ra'anana. Efrati - who farms not for excessive crop yields and cash but for the pleasure of producing clean and healthy food - has no problem passing the AgriOr standards test. "I don't do it for the money," says Efrati, who is now able to make a living from the farm. "People just need to take what we grow. Otherwise, we won't make a living. Maybe people will start to like what they thought they didn't like to eat." The vegetable plan has certainly picked up momentum in Israel, matching the pace of the expanding organic agricultural market. According to Uri Adler, a consultant from the Israel Bio-Organic Agricultural Association (IBOAA), production of organic fruits and vegetables in Israel is expanding at an annual rate greater than 10%t. The IBOAA was the first organic group founded in Israel by the grandfather of local organic agriculture Mario Levi, who in his early eighties still runs the large vegetable garden at the bio-organic kibbutz Sde Eliyahu. Levi is renowned for changing the mind set of Israelis by encouraging them to go organic, and has traveled the world lecturing about his lifetime work in agriculture. On the kibbutz, he is often spotted riding a tractor with a sprig of parsley in his mouth. The IBOAA now has more than 400 members, who receive field advice and training classes from the organization to help instill organic practices throughout the country. From his experience, Adler says that people from all walks of Israeli life are interested in eating organic, including haredim from the Beit Shemesh area. As the health effects of many synthetic pesticides are relatively unknown, it is no surprise that Israelis are increasingly opting to go organic. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), pesticides can aversely affect the nervous system, skin and eyes, and can eventually cause cancer. Pesticides have been documented not only to be dangerous to human health but also to pervade the environment, affecting plants and animals for generations to come. Adler points out that some pesticides are allowed in the organic sector, but they must be made from natural chemicals such as tea tree oil and be well guarded and monitored. For those who work long hours and complain about not filling their vegetable quota, the Hubeiza organic farm plan makes sense. But for those who cannot get used to the idea of the surprise box and playing the vegetable wildcard, another alternative exists in the Tel Aviv area: a two-month-old organic vegetable co-op. The co-op costs less than Hubeiza. Eilat Maoz, who works for the co-op, says it is 40% less expensive than most organic retail produce. But because it does not deliver the produce, subscribing to the co-op plan is more inconvenient. The co-op works with one farmer, Roi Poctwagner of Kfar Ruth near Modi'in, and also makes available fruit from other organic farms so that people can get the full spread of produce. Like Hubeiza's delivery man Avi Levi, Maoz is a crossover activist who also volunteers for environmental organizations when not studying literature and history in university. The co-op's pick-up spot is in the heart of a run-down working class area of south Tel Aviv, not far from the Central Bus Station. Unlike the Hubeiza model, co-op members know exactly what they ordered, as long as the order was submitted in time for Poctwagner to have it delivered to the Green Action office on Tuesdays, when people come to pick up their stock. As soon as they receive the week's revised price list on Sunday (indicating what is in season), co-op members place their orders via e-mail. Joining the co-op costs a NIS 200 check, which is cashed only if a vegetable order is not picked up. The e-mail order cuts out middlemen, bringing value to those who could not otherwise eat organic because it is too expensive, explains Maoz. So far, the group is moving slowly ahead, and after only two months and a slew of Jewish holidays, it hopes to reach a limit of 100 steady members in the near future. Members also pay a negligible fee for transportation to the city and to help subsidize the co-op's operation which, reports Maoz, has no intentions of turning itself into a large business. She explains the benefits of the co-op: "Some people like the surprise basket that they get from the Hubeiza farm, but sometimes people like to know what they will get." Like Levi, she has helped import "fair trade" coffee and cocoa from Columbia and olive oil from the Palestinian territories. "It's important for us to know the person behind the projects we support," says Maoz, comparing the supermarket scenario where most people know little about what they are buying. In some cases, she explains, the production of what we have bought has been done through the exploitation of people and the environment. Little by little, she and Levi are hoping to create a different kind of food paradigm, where people will know who made their food and where it came from. Aware that organic food costs sometimes up to twice as much as regular produce, Maoz doesn't think the co-op will compete with local health stores, but instead will provide a service for local Tel Avivians with limited incomes. As for the co-op idea taking root in Tel Aviv decades after other North American cities had well-established co-ops, Maoz thinks that Israel is still suffering from the socialist legacy whereby cooperatives (and kibbutzim) are a general turn-off to most Israelis. The Tel Aviv group was founded by people involved in Organic Consumers, a non-profit group that sits in on organic standards meetings and attempts to change social policies in Israel. For example, they believe that Israeli organic farmers should not receive certification if migrant workers are exploited. On the other hand, most Israelis do not want to work in agriculture, says Maoz, leaving gaps at the farm in Modi'in that need to be filled. "The farm will pay a fair salary to those who are willing to do farm labor," she says. Adler points out alternatives to these two models (vegetable plans and co-ops). Some farms, he says, will simply deliver an order to the home when the order is placed, while a growing number of private entrepreneurs such as Iris Ben Zvi of Kfar Yeshua near Haifa run private operations that supply fresh farm produce to a steady customer base. "The local market is growing fast, but the export market faster," says Adler, who cannot be sure about exact numbers since many groups do not publish details because of competition. Export favorites are potatoes, peppers and tomatoes. More than half is exported by agriculture giant Agrexco. Other companies such as Gilad Desert Products also market organic produce. In total, about 40 companies work for organic export in Israel, he says. The companies are enjoying premium prices for organic produce in foreign markets, due to demand. Despite the dismantling of Gush Katif farms this past summer, greenhouses in the Arava desert have doubled in area since last year, reports Adler, adding that the Arava is Israel's major source of organic produce. The northern Negev is second in terms of volume of organic crops, followed by the Jezreel Valley. For love or money, self-proclaimed opportunist and activist Levi, who studied psychology and NGO management, is out to change the world one cucumber at a time. He toils away delivering veggies and importing free trade products to help change the Israeli mind set. "I am bored with being in the system, and want to change it. I prefer to be na ve and optimistic to being pessimistic," he says. Adler says that when the day comes that all Israeli farms are organic, his dream will come true. "Younger generations are certainly aware of the importance of organic food, so one day it may be possible." Hubeiza Organic Farm: Tel: 054 653 5980; yisbat@013.net.il Tel Aviv Organic Co-op: 65 Rehov Matalon. Tel: 052 648 0788 coop@organicconsumers.org.il