Oh, Deere

A Kfar Tavor farmer pays homage to the Jezreel Valley's rich agricultural history.

deere image 88 (photo credit: )
deere image 88
(photo credit: )
When Yossi Simhoni was a young kibbutznik wanting to impress a lady from a neighboring Jezreel Valley moshav, he would mount his beloved warrior and head off across the fields to woo her. But his faithful mount boosting his chances of romance was not of the four-legged variety, rather a green and yellow kibbutz workhorse going by the name John Deere. In the northern rural valley of the l960s, a young man astride a tractor had his work cut out with the young ladies, jokes Simhoni, now a resident of Kfar Yehezkel who recently opened a museum in Kfar Tavor paying homage to John Deere tractors and other agricultural equipment manufactured by the world-famous company. Simhoni eventually won the hand of Ziona - the young lady from neighboring Tel Yosef - after taking her for many a ride on his metal steed. Many years later, the former pilot and successful industrialist traced the very vehicle that helped him win his bride and completely refurbished it. "It took time, but I eventually found it discarded in a pile of junk in an orchard near Ashkelon, and over a period of time worked very hard to return it to its former glory," recalls Simhoni. Already bitten by the John Deere bug in his youth, Simhoni, who was born and educated in Kvutzat Geva, then began collecting and restoring antique agricultural machinery. A colossal combine harvester is suspended from the roof of John Deereland in the industrial zone of Kfar Tavor. The former Agrexco packing plant now hosts the largest collection of John Deere artifacts in the Middle East, that cost an estimated one million dollars. All but two of the small, medium and large tractors were plucked from the clutches of metal thieves before they were thrown into a scrap dealer's melting pot. The other two were sent from America to Simhoni's John Deere intensive care unit by a business associate in the US who apparently owed him a favor or two. "Actually, one of them is a present and the other is on loan," explains Simhoni. Knowing that Simhoni sometimes shipped materials from the States, his business associate asked if he had a container being loaded at that time over there so that he could 'pop' in the tractors he wanted to send him. When Simhoni answered in the affirmative his associate quipped, "Then order a bigger container." Sitting with Simhoni in the Toket caf and patisserie run by his daughter in a corner of the museum, one cannot but smile at the innovative design of the tables and chairs - glass-topped tractor wheel hubs surrounded by green and yellow metal chairs sporting the John Deere deer emblem. The museum also boasts simulated tractor theme games, interactive films and a small auditorium with bright yellow seats the same shape as the foam-padded leather variety found on John Deere equipment of modern times -- unlike yesteryear when farmers had to rely on their own natural padding to absorb bumps in the landscape. Movies about farming are screened in the auditorium, with special films suitable for youngsters. Simhoni is in his element, keeping an audience of adults and children spellbound with stories about how mechanical equipment replaced the horse-and-cart, ox and hand-held plows, of the first tractors in the Holy Land and John Deere himself. Around the museum, photographs and display boards emphasize Deere's important contribution to local agriculture. Born in the early 1800s, Deere became a blacksmith and eventually developed the first steel plow - the rest is history on wheels. The first tractor to arrive in Palestine was imported by the German Templars. Simhoni tried to trace that particular machine, but somewhere along the line it ended up over the other side of the Jordan River. He mentions that the first tractor brought to till the soil of the Jezreel Valley belonged to Nahalal farmer Shmuel Dayan, father of the valley's most famous son, General Moshe Dayan. How the Simhoni family arrived in the Jezreel Valley in the early l920s also proves to be a fascinating story. Their original name during the days of Jewish settlement in the Ukrainian Pale of Settlement was Visselnitzsky. "The Hebrew names of the settlements in that area were never changed and until this day are known as Sde Menocha and Nahar Tov," he explains. Simhoni's description of their lives and deeds in Palestine is sufficiently captivating to warrant opening another wing focusing on the family tree. His grandparents, Mordechai and Yehudit arrived in Palestine in l921 and were among the pioneer settlers of Nahalal. Their first son Assaf was born in 1922. An IDF commander during the 1956 Sinai Campaign, Major General Assaf Simhoni was killed in an airplane accident at the end of that war. Eventually the family ended up at Kibbutz Geva after a long ideological journey from Nahalal via Tel Aviv and the commune of Berl Katznelson, activism with the Histadrut Labor Federation and more. Simhoni's father Menahem was sent by Kvutzat Geva in l960 to study in Chicago, and brought the first John Deere tractor to the mainly agricultural Jezreel Valley community. "I was practically brought up in the kibbutz garage as my grandfather and father were in charge of anything that moved in the kibbutz," laughs Simhoni, adding that he was 13 years old when that first John Deere tractor arrived at the kibbutz, and that he has suffered a "deep technological scar" ever since. A pilot in the Israel Air Force, Simhoni left the kibbutz in l986 for another valley settlement, Kfar Yehezkel, where he concentrated on developing his business interests. One day Ziona, his wife and business partner who handles the financial side of their industry, jokingly told him that if he found that tractor that he took her out on all those years ago, she would release funds. It turned out to be a rather expensive joke. JohnDeereland, Kfar Tavor. Open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (except Monday). Telephone: 04-6772570 or 04-6772560