Helping the farmers during the corona crisis

Orna Moller is lending Western Galilee agriculture a helping hand by organizing a market in her own home.

HOTHOUSES BELONGING to farmer Itai Feldman, who remains worried about how to sell his produce. (photo credit: ORNA MOLLER)
HOTHOUSES BELONGING to farmer Itai Feldman, who remains worried about how to sell his produce.
(photo credit: ORNA MOLLER)
For this mother of five who turned 60 recently, staying inside her house during the novel coronavirus pandemic has not meant binging on TV shows and movies. Orna Moller took it upon herself to help Western Galilee farmers who were losing millions of shekels – as well as produce – by organizing a market in her own home. And she has not taken a shekel for it.

“Everyone was sitting around being depressed, but I’m still on a high because I was helping,” Moller, a resident of Shavei Zion, explained.

She had been browsing through Facebook at the start of the pandemic when she read about a farmer whose peonies had been on a plane to Holland. When the flower market suddenly closed there, the farmer had nothing to do with his flowers. Moller decided to reach out to him as well as other farmers in the Western Galilee to sell directly to customers.

At first, she advertised sales through Bishoola, a volunteer group of Shavei Zion women who cook for other women who have just given birth. When demand for the produce increased, Moller started a WhatsApp group, Shuk-Corona, that blossomed to more than 250 members. One of Moller’s daughters designed an Excel sheet so that customers could place orders and pay the farmers directly.

The sales began on March 19, when neighbors and friends lined up with masks and gloves to pick up their orders. At first, Moller started with peonies and then expanded. She tried contacting different farmers to see if they were interested; one said he was so depressed about his million-shekel losses; he didn’t even want to try to recoup anything.

With exports closed, along with restaurants, hotels, catering services and small bed-and-breakfasts in the area; farmers faced enormous losses. For flower growers, there were not even funerals requiring wreaths and flowers at burial sites. Moller knew that her one group wouldn’t solve all the problems of the farmers, but she felt that something was better than nothing.

Moller also saw that farmers don’t have time to answer their phones or take orders. While Moller has been involved in various businesses in the past, she was never in this sort of business. Still, she said that she has found her temporary calling, at first selling pineapples and papayas, and then expanding to mushrooms, asparagus, bok choy, herbs, and other fruits and vegetables. She scoured social media sites to find farmers willing to travel to her home and drop off the produce. When a farmer about 40 minutes away had car troubles, Moller drove to him and had a vehicle breakdown of her own. But she returned with cartons of freshly picked lettuce.

“I just wanted to help the farmers,” Moller said. “People continue to buy the produce not only because it is fresh and amazing but also because they want to do their part.” During the pandemic, only large supermarket chains were buying produce from the farmers and – all too often – they “choke the farmers who didn’t have a choice but to work with the chains,” said Moller.

In addition to organizing Shuk-Corona, Moller also sewed headbands and masks for medical personnel. A talented seamstress – she designed and sewed her own dress for the wedding of her oldest daughter, Shir – Moller said that when she heard that nurses and doctors were complaining that the elastic bands of masks were irritating their ears, she got to work. She sewed headbands made of colorful fabrics and attached buttons so that the masks were attached to the buttons rather than people’s ears. She also sewed a band that fit on the back of people’s heads for men.

“I’ve never been someone who can sit around doing nothing,” Moller said.

One of the farmers whom Moller contacted was Itai Feldman, from the center of the country, who said that his family farm, which grows baby eggplants, cherry tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables, absorbed “hundreds of thousands of shekels worth of losses” because of the coronavirus. Feldman said he had to destroy more than 10 dunams (about 2.5 acres) of flowers because he had no market for them.
 MOLLER WAS happy to rescue these flowers from destruction and sell them directly to local consumers. (Diana Bletter) MOLLER WAS happy to rescue these flowers from destruction and sell them directly to local consumers. (Diana Bletter)

FELDMAN MANAGED to attract some private customers by posting on Instagram and Facebook, and then while everyone was stuck inside, he took to the road. As an essential worker in agriculture, he was able to drive throughout the country, delivering products. Now that people are back to work, Feldman said that traffic makes deliveries to private customers “almost impossible.” However, a positive outcome of coronavirus has been the sudden interest in the concept of “farm-to-table,” where farmers bring produce directly to groups of customers, something that many have said they would like to continue.

Feldman grew up on his parents’ farm and still runs it with his brother and now his children are involved in the business.

“I was born into it,” he said. “I love the earth.” He also said it warmed his heart that during the crisis, people reached out to him.

While initiatives like Moller’s have helped reduce some of the losses farmers have incurred (and given farmers a psychological boost) farmers remain concerned about agriculture.

“Even though we’re more optimistic than we were in the spring, there is a lot more pressure for us now,” said Nitzan Szenes, who works as an adviser for subtropical fruits (avocados, lychees and mangoes) in the Ministry of Agriculture.

He said that once an avocado comes off a tree, “it passes through a lot of hands so we’re taking all the precautions we can.”

In the fields, workers must stay in small groups — or pods. But workers at factories are falling sick.

“Every other day, people need to be quarantined,” Szenes said.

But he is cautiously optimistic about the market for avocados both locally and abroad in Europe. People might be at home, he said, but they’re still buying fruits and vegetables.

Avocados have become a “superfood,” Szenes said.

SZENES GREW up in Moshav Ben Ami on the outskirts of Nahariya where his grandparents, Shaul and Yehudit Szenes, planted citrus and avocado trees. The couple were Holocaust survivors from Hungary who built up a successful farm that now harvests about 100 tons of avocados each year.

Shaul and Yehudit Szenes also started one of the first dog and cat kennels in Israel. But since people have stopped traveling, Szenes said, few people bring their pets; the kennel, once full of animals, is now quiet. To make up for their lost income, his family decided to start growing raspberries; he explained that the crop doesn’t require a lot of land.

Szenes and his father, Benny, now offer spraying services for other farms as well.

“We’ll do whatever we can to keep our farm going,” Szenes said. “My grandfather taught us how to think outside of the box."