Reaping what you sow

As the first permaculture-based educational farm springs up in the Sharon area, The Jerusalem Post takes a look into an innovative system that could change your life and eventually even save the planet.

reaping metro 88 298 (photo credit: Camilla M. Butchins)
reaping metro 88 298
(photo credit: Camilla M. Butchins)
It's Friday, 5 p.m. The sun's rays are turning from yellow to gold. The air has an unusual freshness to it and the soil gives off a scent of summer rain. I close my eyes and breathe in the ambience of my surroundings when a whiff of coffee fills the air. In one hand, she extends me a cup of freshly-brewed Turkish coffee, in the other, a shovel. "Which one?" she asks. I point at the coffee. She gives me both. "When you're ready," she smiles. A year ago, Roni Ashur had taken me proudly to a piece of overgrown land on the outskirts of Hod Hasharon to show me her vision: an organic farm for the purpose of teaching kids and adults a sustainable and relatively new way of cultivating, thinking and living. All I could see were weeds, a junk yard and a few bushes of passion fruit. Now that vision is taking shape. Yevulim (Crops) in Kfar Malal is the first organic-based educational farm to spring up in the area. Based barely two minutes from the new highway connecting to the Trans-Israel Highway, one minute from the Ra'anana industrial zone and 500 meters from ploughed-over orchards awaiting high-rise apartment blocks, it's hard to believe that an alternative way of living and thinking is possible. The plot is run by Ashur and Anat Amitai, both in their early 30s. Amitai, a teacher at the Hod Hasharon Democratic School, and Ashur, who runs courses in therapeutic gardening for disadvantaged communities, met seven years ago at the Hebrew University's agricultural college in Rehovot. They both have a BSc in Agricultural Sciences, and had worked for many years for crop engineering companies. Together, they sought a way to combine their love of education and toiling the land - a personal touch. A huge sign painted in colored sand hangs over the creeper-covered arch at the entrance to the farm, metaphorically showing that anything is possible, as well as practical. Under the blue shade cloth, an abundance of clothing materials, cushions and paintbrushes are waiting to be gathered into neat boxes. The plot itself is divided into a cactus section, a herb and vegetable garden and an animal sanctuary. Grapevines creep up the geodesic dome surrounded by freshly-planted carrots, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. Amitai and Ashur were preparing the farm for the influx of children for their annual summer camp. The camp concentrates on nature, environment and movement studies, allowing the children to experience planting and growing vegetables, learn about nature through direct contact with the land, and be creative by using diverse materials taken from the natural world and that of man. Owned by the Amitai family and occupying a little over a dunam of land (about a quarter of an acre), the ecological farm proclaims only a natural use of resources. It is cultivated according to a system of rules adapted from cycles of nature itself: No soil is overturned, no pesticides or chemicals used, or artificial hormones injected into the plants. The only system used is a natural way of growing and sustaining crops by using and reusing organic waste: permaculture. The term "permaculture" is a combination of permanent culture and agriculture - a phrase which semantically encompasses the whole philosophy of a ground-breaking system. Invented and coined by Australian ecologist Bill Mollison in 1971 as an answer to the world's increasing exhaustion of natural resources, the system offers a sustainable planning and design method. Covering all aspects of life, it is first and foremost a way to sustain and maintain man and nature together on this planet. By using the patterns taken from cycles in nature, the system cultivates a relationship ensuring neither man nor nature exhaust or enslave one another. "It's very hard to explain in a nutshell what permaculture is," says Amitai, as she saws wood to build the new animal enclosure. "The best way I can describe it is a way of life. The idea is to act together with nature and not against it. It covers the whole realm of our being: economics, education, consumerism, nutrition and health. It's about minimizing man's fingerprint on earth while keeping him in the center. It is basically a tool, and personally I was so excited to discover that with it I can bring together my love for teaching and gardening." Three basic values are at the core of this pioneering method: caring for man, caring for the earth and 'fair share,' meaning distribution of surplus. This surplus is not only in the materialistic sense - if one has time on one's hands, one can contribute it. If you have knowledge, you can share it. It's a complete practical philosophy which takes care of those around you. "I only buy food from people I know and make sure they earn a decent living. That way, I contribute to the cycle," says Amitai. "It's basically taking care of your community and surroundings. When the soil is healthy, man is healthy." Ashur leads me to the huge pile of garbage by the warehouse where I am to put my shovel and hands to use. Rummaging through and dividing it up paints a neat picture of the average consumer family over a period of three months: An old cardboard TV box full of plastic yoghurt bottles, a 2x2 meter box overflowing with milk and cheese cartons, plastic containers used to package "organic lettuce leaves," scores of glass and plastic bottles, egg cartons, plastic bags, and of course, the infamous Styrofoam (polystyrene) containers which never disintegrate. This kind of surplus rings the alarm bells on how much and how carelessly we consume, and how we could find ways to cut down. In the meanwhile, though, the "good" garbage is to be creatively reused at the summer camp in art classes. But one's waste need not be wasted. The organic compost pile, far off at the other side of the plot, is hungrily awaiting more. These heaps of leftover food - gifts to the earth by the natural process of decomposing - can be put back into the soil, enriching and fertilizing it, allowing fruit, vegetables and herbs to grow without chemicals and pesticides. By ensuring the right balance of water and air for the decomposing process to complete, the compost takes only three months to become fertilizer. This simple method of giving back what you take in order to get more carries the key to the cycle, and is at the core of the system. "It's incredible how things happen when they're supposed to," says Ashur, adding a half-eaten carrot to the pile. "You don't have to force anything or make it faster or quicker or bigger or stronger with artificial means. The process just happens naturally. You give to the soil, it gives back - and not only in the agricultural sense but also through family, friends and community." A diverse and interesting community is developing around the farm. Next door is Beit Noam, a rehabilitation hostel for men convicted of domestic violence. Following a neighborly relationship the two plots had struck up, the hostel management together with Ashur and Amitai have molded a weekly volunteering program for the men at the farm. The program provides the two women the extra help needed, and offers back the openness and trust that are significant to the group. Ashur and Amitai are hoping to continue the line and develop a program for Beit Ha'Shahaf, a shelter for delinquent youth, offering them weekly lessons in exchange for help on the farm. "A real connection can been made based on trust and mutual giving, which we hope in some way contributes to a healing process," says Ashur. "The beauty of permaculture is that you don't need an acre of land for it. It can be practiced on your roof, or windowsill, by the way you grow flowers or herbs, or by changing your consumer habits and recycling." The system in Israel is relatively new compared to Australia, the US and Europe, but is definitely taking off. Dozens of courses in city-permaculture are being offered, and even the collecting of rainwater on the rooftops of Tel Aviv has quite a following. In the past 10 years, more people are beginning to practice organic and natural means as awareness grows rapidly. The local forerunners of the system are Talia Shneider of Pardess Hana (author of a book on permaculture and Ashur's personal tutor), Gur Rotem who owns the "Adamama" farm in Nir Moshe and the "Adam and Eve" ecological farm in Modi'in. Kibbutz Lotan in the southern Negev also offers organic gardening and natural construction courses. The Sharon farm itself has already run two summer camps and one Pessah camp amidst numerous other educational programs it offers, as well as organic vegetable growing courses for adults. In the spirit of recycling, Yevulim also holds every first Friday of the month a "give and take" market for clothing and anything else useful that is no longer in use. Whatever is not swooped up is given to charity. There is a saying in permaculture that "the longest path is actually the quickest." And in a world where "the immediate" seems to be the highest priority and push-button comfort is becoming a new religion, a simple pause to recall what nature can offer us and what we can offer back is certainly called for. The sun is setting, the birds are chirping louder. I put down my shovel and close my eyes again, breathing in the last few rays of the day. I imagine before me a world where man and nature live as one, no fumes pollute the air, no conglomerates take over small businesses and there is no race against time or war against nature. In this place, food and water are in abundance, sunset and sunrise allow for serenity and man sits proudly on a throne of compost. Sounds like utopia? Well, it is. And it can start in your own back yard. For more details on organic gardening courses and summer camps contact Roni Ashur 052-4260833 or Anat Amitai 052-3643721