The gospel according to Mario

A nonagenarian kibbutznik’s lifelong crusade for organic farming has affected the entire Jewish state.

Mario Levy shows off his organic courgettes in fields belonging to Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu in the Beit She’an Valley (photo credit: SASSON TIRAM)
Mario Levy shows off his organic courgettes in fields belonging to Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu in the Beit She’an Valley
(photo credit: SASSON TIRAM)
ISRAEL’S WAR of Independence was still in its early stages when winter’s pitch darkness enveloped hundreds of invading Iraqi troops as they hid in the farmlands surrounding three isolated kibbutzim not far from where Jacob and a stranger once wrestled all night.
They hid so well, recalls Mario Levy, one of the subsequent battle’s last survivors, that he noticed nothing even while driving his truck through the enemy troops who lay silently in the fields preparing to storm Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi, where he had just offloaded a vegetable cargo, two kilometers from the Jordan.
At 3 a.m., as gunfire erupted simultaneously from hundreds of gun barrels, the vastly outnumbered and underequipped, but highly disciplined, kibbutzniks withheld their fire until the invaders reached their outer fence, cut it and approached the inner fence.
As the kibbutzniks opened fire, the sky suddenly cracked open and a torrent of rain poured down and the invaders soon became bogged down in the muddy fields while their soaked guns jammed. By morning, the machineguns were silent and the fields were witnesses to a harvest of death.
“We found bodies and weapons in the fields,” says Levy, referring to the victory in the fields where he would later pioneer organic farming while becoming an ambitious, resourceful and idealistic industry’s roaming prophet and high priest.
Peace has long descended on the Beit She’an Valley, where puddles from the recent rains now glisten in the straight rows of carrots, lettuce, kohlrabi and fennel, untainted by chemicals, which sprout from the field that Levy, 40 years ago, turned into the first of more than 330 Israeli organic farms.
What began with an experimental 200 dunams (50 acres) at Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, hardly a tenth of its farmland, has since expanded to more than a third of its fields where it also deploys animals as pesticides and insects as insecticides, and avoids all chemical fertilizers in a radius of 500 meters around the kibbutz.
“Had anyone told me that morning in February 1948 that in the same fields where the British were now collecting bodies I would someday do what we ended up doing here, I would not have understood them because I had not even heard the term organic farming,” says the farmer who, at 91, walks, unassisted, waving his earth-encrusted hands, his arms tanned, his voice clear, and his vision bright.
God’s curse to Adam, “by the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat,” no longer holds. Farming, once the occupation of most humans, is now the lot of three in a 100, while newly abundant meat, rice, potatoes, and a variety of previously exotic fish, fruits and vegetables are part of an average person’s meal.
Yet, several generations after its emergence, farmers and nutritionists began to doubt the merits of conventional agriculture realizing that all too prevalent chemicals brought with them pollution and ailments, plaguing man, beast, crop, soil, and air.
Levy joined the agnostics in the 1950s, when he noticed that a single crop could undergo as many as 40 chemical sprayings before finally being harvested.
The Italian-born immigrant, who received his agricultural education as a teenager in the Mikve Yisrael school south of Tel Aviv, had begun reading about alternative agriculture when Swiss organic farmer Hugo Miller offered to train an Israeli agronomist in his methods. Levy was selected, traveled to Miller’s farm in Switzerland and soon returned as an apostle of the new faith.
For a society that prided itself on its scientific research and on its farmers’ harnessing of science, technology and planning, organic farming’s attack on chemical treatment was often met with hostility. Levy was unfazed.
“Chemical fertilizers, sterilizers and pesticides deform what we eat,” he preaches with a young revolutionary’s zeal. “They contaminate the soil, pollute the air and end up in our stomachs, arteries and brain,” Levy tells The Jerusalem Report.
Moreover, as an observant Jew, he believes that conventional farming is anti-Jewish because it violates God’s commandment to Adam and Eve to guard and preserve the world he created.
The focus of organic farming, Levy learned, is in the treatment of soil, which conventional farming saturates with chemicals.
The soil is an organism, he explains, and conventional faming kills it. Conversely, when the soil is treated properly, “we are halfway to our objective.”
The organic gospel is, indeed, about both nutrition and environment.
TO AVOID soil exhaustion, organic farmers rotate crops and plow no deeper than 10 centimeters, and to avoid sprinkling plants with chemicals, they fight weeds with animals and unleash predators on pests. This inventive part of organic farming is visible throughout Levy’s kibbutz.
Between its date orchards’ lean palms, donkeys chew weeds as efficiently as lawnmowers while, at the other end of the kibbutz, the Bio-Bee insect-breeding company’s 150 employees research, produce and package wasps that devour lice; bees that pollinate without manufacturing honey; and microorganisms that swallow aphids, which disrupt photosynthesis by converging on leaves.
Come winter, hundreds of owls will land in 200 cotes scattered throughout Sde Eliyahu’s fields, and in the dark of night will stealthily descend from their two-room dwellings on hundreds of unsuspecting mice.
“We used to spread rat poison,” kibbutz veteran Ronit Yaacobi recalls to The Report, “but then we found carcasses of hyenas, jackals and owls that ate the poisoned rats.”
An experiment with imported owls initially failed, when the birds fled after a one year stay. But then others came from the wild, stayed on, and proved so efficient that cotes like those at Sde Eliyahu soon spread throughout the fields of neighboring communities.
The entire Beit Shean Valley followed suit and then the nearby Harod and Jezreel Valleys cultivated their own flocks of owls. Subsequently the idea spread to the south. Organic farming, once an oddity to some and anathema to others, now impacted on the entire Jewish state.
Finally, the gospel crossed the Jordan River, as word of the owls’ effectiveness reached Jordanian Air Force Maj.-Gen. (res.) Mansour Abu Rashid, who installed owl cotes in his own fields, from where they spread elsewhere in Jordan.
Levy became a guide to a growing number of innovative farmers throughout the country.
Organic farming, it turned out, could be practical as well as ideological, as the kibbutz’s insect factory’s unofficially estimated $27 million in annual global sales attests, as do the organic spices the kibbutz sells to factories and the organic compost it trucks to farms.
Israeli consumers, however, lagged behind their entrepreneurial peers.
Avoiding chemicals means less yield per acre, which means higher costs for the farmer and higher prices for customers, who in European and American stores are charged 20 to 40 percent more than the conventionally grown produce and in Israeli stores – 100 to 120 percent more.
Even so, global demand is on the rise, as shoppers increasingly suspect that the canned and vacuum-wrapped foods on their supermarket shelves can be so intensely processed that what is presented, for instance, as “guacamole salad” might in fact contain hardly two spoons of avocado, as a recent lawsuit in the US revealed.
Americans buy $40 billion worth of organic foods annually, nearly five percent of the US food market ‒ a share that is steadily growing.
In Israel, there have also been some signs of growing demand in recent years, most notably when supermarket chain Alon Blue Square bought a majority stake in the healthfood chain Eden Teva Market, and when Shufersal placed organic food stalls in dozens of its outlets. Overall, sales of organic fruit and vegetables have grown from less than 11 million shekels in 2012 to 16.9 million shekels in the first 10 months this year.
These numbers pale when compared with the millions that await organic-produce exporters ‒ the biggest of which emerged in recent years in one of the country’s most forgotten corners, in the improbable aftermath of Israel’s departure 10 years ago from Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip.
“The struggle against the disengagement squeezed everyone’s energies,” recalls Rabbi Eli Adler in his spacious house in Naveh, where 110 families are building a new community in the Halutza dunes along with two more communities, Bnei Netzarim and Shlomit, all just within the country’s westernmost corner where Egyptian sentries and Gazan muezzins can see each other across Israeli fields.
Having refused to prepare for the morning after the evacuation until its arrival, Adler and his colleagues in the community of Atzmona had no contingency plan when they were initially relocated in the summer of 2005 to Kibbutz Shaalvim. “Then we heard of this virgin soil,” he tells The Report, motioning to the surrounding wilderness, before adding, “We were drawn.”
Unlike other evacuees, part of Adler’s original community decided to stick together and relocate intact. Psychologically, it was a tricky choice; the new location’s proximity to the evacuees’ old homes could comfort some and bedevil others. The freshness of this population’s wounds is palpable and also visible, as can be seen in one house that displays an abandoned road sign reading “To the Katif Bloc,” while a sign atop the entrance to the local basketball court commemorates Doron Lev, “a distinguished athlete and warrior who fell in defense of the Katif Bloc.”
FROM ORGANIC farming’s viewpoint, however, Halutza proved a perfect choice.
“Organic farmers must, first of all, clean the soil,” says Oren Barnea of Kibbutz Saad, until recently CEO of Atzmona Potatoes Ltd., the farming company that 10 families, including Adler’s, formed in Katif, and which now had to decide what to do in the dunes where the government offered them alternative land.
The dunes of Halutza, it turns out, had never been cultivated. The hot and bare sand dunes receive a mere 50 millimeters of rainfall a year. The area was handed to the IDF, which used it for large-scale armored, infantry and artillery exercises.
Having been asked by Katif evacuees to advise them how to develop the area, Barnea drove with them in an SUV through the barren dunes until they parked by a lone tamarisk, surveyed the view, and emerged with a vision – to create in Halutza the world’s largest organic farm.
Halutza’s emptiness and remoteness, disadvantages in many other respects, were priceless for this purpose because its soil had never tasted the chemicals that are the abomination of Levy’s faith. Weeding out an ordinary dunam of land takes 10 days, says Barnea. Halutza’s soil was so barren that they accomplished that task in one day.
Before long, Halutza’s dunes were flattened and water pipes crossed them like veins while furrows were plowed and potato seeds were sown. The Gaza disengagement was hardly one year old when Halutza’s organic potatoes were served on German dinner tables.
The company later experienced turbulence, when a pest attacked its crops and its main market in Germany was oversupplied due to events in Russia, all of which resulted in nearby Kibbutz Alumim’s purchase of a majority stake in Atzmona Potatoes.
The company has since recovered, and the vision of an organic powerhouse in Halutza remains alive and well.
“Our current turnover is NIS 100 million, 90 percent of which are exported potatoes and carrots,” says Jonathan Bienenfeld, CEO of Atzmona Potatoes. Halutza’s organic farms, where Atzmona Potatoes has been joined by competitors like Mehadrin and EGO, are Israel’s largest, by far.
Nightfall was approaching as the radio reported renewed unrest in Gaza, while Halutza’s long rows of flourishing radishes seemed to welcome the strokes of dusk’s gentle wind.
Come darkness, say the locals, tranquility will at one point or another be disrupted by explosions, echoes of the fighting that rages in the Sinai (just to the west of the organic potato fields) and of the perennial restlessness in Gaza to the north.
Beit She’an Valley’s periods of violence continued, on and off, until the early 1970s, as Yaacobi recalls from her childhood in Sde Eliyahu. “Life here back then was like the turmoil in recent years in the towns surrounding Gaza,” she says, citing frequent bombardments, dashes to the bomb shelter and an infiltration in which terrorists blasted a silo near her house.
Now, the closest her peaceful valley comes to war are the Israeli and Jordanian owls’ sorties against the local rats. Its current tranquility can hardly contrast more starkly with what the Gaza area’s communities have been through before and since the evacuation of 2005. Yet, the two Israeli bastions of organic farming are actually closer than meets the eye, and in some ways even intertwined.
First, the man assigned to resettle the Katif evacuees, Col. (res.) Yonatan Basi, is a resident of Kibbutz Maale Gilboa overlooking the Beit She’an Valley and a native of Sde Eliyahu, where he was born five months after the failed invasion in February 1948.
Second, Basi’s son, Shaul, is CEO of the organic flagship up north, the Bio-Bee plant, and his father also served there previously as a director.
Lastly, the organic flagship down south would not have emerged without Levy’s trailblazing in the north, which showed how to salvage environmental gospel, commercial opportunity and entrepreneurial resolve from the jaws of war.
“Mario Levy,” says Atzmona Potatoes’ Bienenfeld, “is the spiritual father of us all.”