From holiday delicacy to year-round appeal

The Volcani Institute is refurbishing the pomegranate and advancing other quirky agricultural projects.

pomegranate 311 (photo credit: Courtesy Volcani Institute of Agricultural Researc)
pomegranate 311
(photo credit: Courtesy Volcani Institute of Agricultural Researc)
The pomegranate, whose supposed 613 seeds make it a popular choice for High Holy Day meals, continues to become more and more available throughout the year, rather than simply during the period surrounding the September and October holidays.
For over a decade, plant scientists at the Volcani Institute of Agricultural Research have been developing and refining varieties of the pomegranate plant that are now able to grow and bear fruit in up to eight months of the year – a development that continues to make all agricultural work associated with the fruit much more worthwhile and economical, according to Dr. Sheenan Harpaz, director of deputy research and associate director of international cooperation at the institute.
“The pomegranate is a new-old plant here in Israel,” said Harpaz during a late September journalists’ tour of the institute.
“It’s one of the fruits this country has been blessed with. In the past decade or so we have been doing a lot of work in order to introduce better varieties.”
The scientists at the institute, a subsidiary of the Agriculture and Regional Development Ministry – have been working on methods to better irrigate, fertilize and breed the plants to increase their annual yields, but only recently have developed new forms of the fruit that are able to sustain climatic conditions throughout the year.
“The extension of pomegranate season in Israel from July till February (eight months) became possible for two main reasons: (1) breeding of new early-season varieties that begin bearing fruit from July, and (2) extension of post-harvest storage of the lateseason varieties harvested at the end of October till as late as February,” Dr. Ron Porat, a researcher in post-harvest storage and food science told The Jerusalem Post.
While post-harvest storage techniques have been developed by Porat and his team, the special breeding techniques are performed by Dr.
Doron Holland, a molecular genetics researcher at the institute’s northern Neveh Ya’ar facility, where he began working on attaining a year-round presence for the pomegranate in 2000.
“My work is a continuation of more than about 30 years of work of my predecessors. They initiated it by connecting pomegranate material from all over Israel,” Holland said, noting that in 2004 his team first began getting good quality fruits for extended periods through genetic crossings, but that these were quite “difficult to store” at first.
This was when Porat’s postharvest group joined in the effort, leading some pomegranate cultivars to become available on the market by around 2008, according to Holland. But the multidisciplinary team’s work is far from over, as Holland is currently aiming to extend the pomegranate’s growing season even further, while maintaining top quality products at high yields and low costs to farmers, he explained.
“It’s not a big problem to make them the whole year – it’s a combination of using the appropriate genetics and geological conditions,” Holland said.
“But the problem is to get highquality fruit whenever we want.
Once you achieve this you have to work on other aspects – being able to produce in high yields at a relatively low investment.
“We are engaged now in developing appropriate processes to make it possible to produce them in mass, in high quality at a very low investment,” he added.
At the moment, the new early season fruit varieties are redder, sweeter and have softer seeds than those that ripen later in the season, according to Porat, but Holland stressed that this will not always be the case as quality improves.
One impetus for growing fruits throughout the year is for the commercialization of a machine that extracts and separates pomegranate seeds at a capacity of 1.5 tons of fruit per day and delivers them on a conveyor belt, a system developed by scientists at Volcani’s Agricultural Engineering Institute, Harpaz said. The machine, invented by Dr. Yoav Sarig and a team of researchers, was submitted for United States patent in 2004, and officially received its patent license this June, according to the US Patent Office.
“This machine is very expensive. The pomegranate season is usually only two months a year. So someone who buys this machine has a machine that sits idle nine or 10 months,” Harpaz said. “In order to overcome that we’ve developed varieties that develop and give fruit throughout the year.
“We have reached the situation where the owner of this machine doesn’t have to stand and look at this machine with cobwebs on it,” he added.
The machine is commercially available, and is sold by the Yuran company both in Israel and all over the world – mainly in California, according to Porat.
In addition to prospective increased availability of pomegranates, other harvest projects of late at the institute include an automatic olive harvesting machine that contains special traps to destroy insects, and a mechanism that saves waste products for compost, Harpaz explained.
Meanwhile, herbs and spices from the institute and farmers around Israel are being sold en masse to Europe, he added.
“Israel sells basil to Italy,” Harpaz said, chuckling, but noting that Israel exports about 15 different herbs, including basil, chives, oregano, rosemary, sage and lemongrass. “We were able to do that by producing fresh herbs that are packed in this special plastic packaging – we call it breathing packaging.”
Steering away from plants and into the domestic animal realm, Harpaz said that the institute is currently working with desert aquaculture ornamental fish farms, to mass produce male Israeli “Nemo” fish – amphibrions – for sale in Europe, where the fish that resembles the title character of the Disney film has become extremely popular. In order to quickly make the fish available for sale, fishermen in the Philippines and surrounding areas were spreading cyanide to catch and resuscitate 1 to 2 percent of them, while destroying the others, according to Harpaz.
“We have four farms in which these fish are propagated artificially, far away from the sea,” Harpaz said, noting that there are 20 farms in the Arava Desert. “In doing so, we are alleviating the pressure on the coral reef in different places of the world.”