Living on 'desert time'

Negev farmers raise camels, sell Argan oil and host vacationers.

camels 311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
camels 311
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
In the Negev, far from the hustle and bustle of Tel Aviv or the politics of Jerusalem, two pioneers have found a novel way to support their family and make the desert bloom: breeding camels.
When Yoni Sharir is asked why he raises camels on his remote 90-dunam (9 hectares) spread near the Ramon Air Force base, a smile runs across his face as he said, “I grew up in Beersheba and I just fell in love with camels. They’re a very sensitive and intelligent animal with a very strong memory. They are much smarter than a horse and they can understand what you want from them because they have such a strong memory.”
A dyed in the wool Israeli of the outdoors type, Sharir spent time in the North after the army, before finally moving back to the Negev, where the wide-open spaces and laid-back pace suit him.
“You relax more here, you have time to think more. It’s like they say, we live on ‘desert time,’ everything moves slower here,” he said.
He met his wife, Orly, while he was a ranger for the Nature Authority and she was working as a tour guide in the Negev; 12 years later they and their five children live on a desert hilltop where the night stars are the only skyline.
Yoni and Orly Sharir founded Orliya Farm in 2003 as one of 23 small agricultural settlements set up through the government’s “wine road” initiative. The program began in 1998 as a means of developing the Negev expanses off Highway 40 between Beersheba and Mitzpe Ramon in order to increase tourism and cut down on illegal Beduin settlement. Under the plan, started when Ariel Sharon was prime minister, people willing to run agricultural enterprises were given plots of land by the state, with the understanding that they would develop them.
Seven years later, the Sharirs and the other farm owners remain in a legal limbo, waiting for the government to place its seal of approval on the farms. Sharir said he is confident that upcoming legislation sponsored by MK Yisrael Hasson (Kadima) will afford permanent legality to the agricultural endeavors.
Currently, the Sharirs have only two camels in their stable, down from a onetime high of eight. Only the male, “Hammerhead,” has earned a moniker, while the female is pregnant with a calf, which the Sharirs will raise on their farm soon.
Sharir said he avoids the rough hand usually wielded by camel trainers, preferring a slower, gentler, and more intimate type of training that builds a relationship with the animal.
“There is another way to train them; you can tie them up and deal with them very roughly. But with our way, you treat them like a small child.”
But there’s only so much money to be made in raising camels. Sharir said that a calf selling for NIS 2,000-4,000 will eventually grow into a full-sized, well-trained camel that will sell for NIS 8,000-10,000. If it’s a breeding male, he can expect to command around NIS 12,000.
While the profits aren’t astronomical, camel breeding has a relatively low overhead. All Sharir needs to feed them is peanuts, corn, and wheat in the winter and hay and grass in the warmer months. Also, there’s little risk of theft, saying, “for one, it’s a smart animal; it won’t just go with anyone who tries to take it. Also, it weighs about 800 kg., so you can’t really take it anywhere against its will.”
Sharir said that while some of the buyers purchase camels for tourist endeavors, most of his clients are Beduin, adding that he doesn’t raise his camels to be ridden, rather to be dairy animals or breeders. He added that he has good relations with the Beduin in his area and has not had any tension or instances of trespassing or theft on his property.
Sharir won’t be expecting a seal of approval from the rabbinate anytime soon, as the camel is strictly unkosher. He did however say that for those inclined, camel milk closely resembles breast milk and is lactose-free and rich in healthy, unsaturated fats. While he’s never eaten camel meat before, Sharir said there used to be a camel meat market in the Old City of Hebron, though he can’t vouch for the quality of its merchandise.
The Sharirs also make highly lucrative Argan oil from the around 60Argan trees on their property. The tree, endemic to Morocco, is knownfor its oil famous for its health benefits as a dressing for salads andbreads, and as a skin moisturizer. At about NIS 1 per milliliter, theoil made from the Argan seed has a profit margin as healthy as its fatcontent.
The Sharirs have jumped into the bed and breakfast industry, hostingout-of-towners at the two bed and breakfast cabins that Orly built byhand with an eye for ecology and energy efficiency. Using recycledwastewater, the cabins get optimal breezes while facing away from thesun during the hottest parts of the day. They were built to blend intothe desert surroundings and are rather minimal, without TVs, thoughcomplete with A/C, because, as Yoni said, “there are some things youcan’t live without.”