Man of the land

Mario Levy, the ‘father’ of Israeli organic agriculture, receives an honorary doctorate for his life’s work.

Honorary Doctor Mario Levy Bar-Ilan 521 (photo credit: Yoni Reif)
Honorary Doctor Mario Levy Bar-Ilan 521
(photo credit: Yoni Reif)
In the sweltering heat of the Beit She’an valley, a 90-yearold man can be found farming the fields of his kibbutz in the early morning hours. On this particular morning, he is working in the onion field and showing a volunteer how to properly remove an onion from the ground.
Wearing the trademark kibbutznik hat and with his weathered hands, Mario Levy is clearly a man of the land, having worked the fields of Sde Eliyahu for over 70 years.
Levy was born in Trieste in northern Italy, and immigrated to Israel when he 15 with Youth Aliyah in 1939 following the rise of the Nazi regime and Italy’s Fascist government legislation against Italian Jews.
“I never imagined myself in the farming profession,” Levy told The Jerusalem Post. “Back in Trieste, we were city people.”
Levy’s father, who was a government clerk, was killed in Auschwitz, while his mother and siblings managed to survive the war.
Upon arriving in Israel, Mario studied agriculture in the Mikve Israel Agricultural School and moved to the religious kibbutz Sde Eliyahu in 1941, together with his wife, Priva, who was from a German Jewish family and whom he had met in Israel. “I am the first and only farmer in my family,” Levy says proudly.
“In the years leading up to the establishment of the Jewish state, there was a lot of work to do on the kibbutz. We were all farmers,” explains Levy. “As pioneers, we understood that in order to acquire the Land of Israel, we first had to farm the land.”
On Sde Eliyahu, Levy organized and developed the agricultural sector of the kibbutz, where he oversaw years of successful and fruitful harvest. But after 35 years of conventional chemical farming methods, Levy began to see the negative side effects on the soil and crops. In the late 1960s, he realized that pesticides and chemical fertilization used to stop pests from attacking crops were damaging to the long-term growth of produce, the ecosystem and the health of people.
“The average person goes to buy a cucumber and doesn’t think about the kind of field it was grown in or the chemicals he may be ingesting as he eats it,” says Levy, who sees a direct connection between farming and the values of Judaism.
“As Jews, we have the obligation and mitzva to safeguard our well-being so that we can fulfill our spiritual destiny in this world. And as farmers, we bear an even greater responsibility to follow this principle. The crops that we reap and sell must be safe and beneficial, not harmful to the human body.
“If you give the earth a chemical fertilizer, this breaks down the natural equilibrium of earth life that’s existed for millions of years. Although chemical methods and pesticides may produce bountiful crops in the short term, the long-term damage is terrible – both to the environment and to human health,” explains Levy.
Consequently, he began learning and researching a new alternative method that was unheard of in Israel at the time – organic farming, which promotes working with and not against nature through the use of natural, biological and eco-friendly methods. For example, instead of using pesticides to stop insects from harming crops, Sde Eliyahu uses certain insects, known as “good bugs,” to control pests.
But in the beginning, the Agriculture Ministry disagreed and even doubted Levy’s organic farming measures, so he and the kibbutz experimented with organic farming on their own. In the 1970s, Sde Eliyahu began to grow potatoes, carrots, fennel, beets, wheat, corn and other products – all organically – and with much success, to the surprise of the ministry. Thereafter, the ministry appointed Levy as an instructor in organic farming. In this capacity, he began to teach, promote and encourage organic farming methods across Israel, later establishing the Israel Bio-Organic Agriculture Association in 1982, which sets guidelines for organic farming and advises Israeli organic manufacturers and farmers in foreign exporting and marketing.
The story of Levy’s organic farming vision is just as much about him as it is about Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu.
To date, Sde Eliyahu’s industries are all agriculturally related.
One of its most important enterprises is BioBee, a company that the kibbutz established in 1983, which mass produces beneficial insects, mites and pollinating bumblebees for agricultural purposes, which are exported to 32 countries around the world, from Chile to Japan to the US.
Indeed, considering the history of Sde Eliyahu and its place today as one of the world’s leading organic developers, makes this kibbutz even more remarkable.
Sde Eliyahu was founded in May 1939 and was named after Rabbi Eliyahu Guttmacher, one of the early leaders of the Religious Zionist movement who called for the agricultural settlement of Israel in the 19th century. The kibbutz was initially one of the 52 tower and stockade settlements (known in Hebrew as homa umigdal), which were constructed between 1936 and 1939 across the country during the years of the Arab revolt. At the time, British Mandatory authorities restricted the establishment of new Jewish settlements. Consequently, Jewish pioneers constructed watch towers and stockades overnight on JNF-purchased land to circumvent British authorities and forestall Arab attacks.
As a Zionist, Levy believes it is our mission – both farmer and non-farmer alike – to take care of the Land of Israel.
“We must protect our great and precious heritage; our tiny country that we received from the Creator, from all types of harm,” he says.
Levy was recognized by Bar-Ilan University in May with an honorary doctorate for his lifelong work in pioneering organic agriculture in the field, across the country and in the world.
Looking a little out of place dressed in a black cap and gown instead of his traditional kibbutz work clothes, Levy’s smile and twinkling eyes lit up the stage as he received the prestigious degree, alongside seven other recipients of honorary doctorates.
“It was a little strange to be in that kind of ceremony,” he admits. “I usually don’t like these kinds of fancy events, but this was done so tastefully. More importantly, thanks to Bar- Ilan University, the message of organic farming was able to reach even more people and academia.”
But perhaps the greatest testimony to Levy’s work was not so much the honorary doctorate, but the three busloads of kibbutzniks and family members – including his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren – which traveled from Sde Eliyahu and across Israel to support the man that led the organic revolution.
“The Jewish way is to find the path of truth in all that we do. Safeguarding human life is part of that truth and organic farming is integral to this mission,” concludes Levy. “We all have a part to play.”