A long way from the countryside

A long way from the countryside Israel’s first commercial urban farm blooms in Beersheba

Israel’s first commercial urban farm blooms in Beersheba. (photo credit: RAFFI WINEBURG)
Israel’s first commercial urban farm blooms in Beersheba.
(photo credit: RAFFI WINEBURG)
At first, Adam Ganson was worried about starting an organic farm behind a gas station. And it wasn’t just the location – the abandoned land, which belongs to the Beersheba Municipality, was covered in 70 tons of rubble. While clearing it out by hand, Ganson could sometimes enlist the help of tractor drivers who had stopped for fuel. He learned to live with the gas station.
He and his wife, Moran, are co-directors of Earth’s Promise, an NGO in Beersheba that recently launched Gimel Produce, the country’s first and only commercial urban farm. The farm, named after the Gimmel neighborhood in which it resides, is an acre and a half of dusty land healthily blooming with everything from cabbage to kohlrabi, beetroot to tomato.
Urban farming is growing in popularity across the world. In Israel, however, the idea has been slow to catch on. Globally, urban agriculture arises from a desire for sustainability, and to rectify the negative ecological impacts of industrial farming.
Ganson, who already manages a handful of community gardens in Beersheba through Earth’s Promise, saw urban agriculture as an opportunity for a more holistic type of sustainability.
“The are a lot of community gardens in Israel, and most of them are very good at what they do, which is bind the community and create green spaces,” he says.
“When Moran and I came, we saw a great concept which had something missing. That something was economy.”
The new farm doesn’t just engage community and clean up neglected areas of public blight. It lowers the barriers to organic food while buttressing local economy. Hyper-local produce grown, bought, sold, and consumed in Gimmel keeps money circulating through the community and attracts consumers from other neighborhoods. All the revenue from the farm’s produce – which is sold to local markets, residents and restaurant owners – goes first toward farm upkeep. The rest is funneled back to the community (“We are, after all, a non-profit organization,” Ganson says).
The money goes toward supporting the local gardens, projects, and events like the Earth’s Promise Ecothiopia festival, which took place earlier this year.
The celebration, now in its fifth year, promotes “ecology and Ethiopian culture” and had nearly 600 people in attendance. The festival featured Ethiopian food, workshops, dancing, and ecological activities.
“[These events] try to connect the community with different ecological activities,” says Ganson.
Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, the Earth’s Promise co-director is a large figure, both literally and figuratively.
A bear-sized Paul Bunyan in a farmer’s hat, he dwarfs the comparatively smaller-framed Tunisians, Moroccans and Ethiopians in the city. This, of course, makes him cool. Around town, everyone shakes his hand, and when we go for couscous, the restaurant’s gregarious owner plops an extra meatball onto Gan - son’s plate, excitedly announcing, “On the house!” Ganson is also a fixture in the community. He’s been in Beersheba since 2012, working with immigrant populations in community gardens. Last year, he successfully petitioned the Beersheba planning department for permission to use the land and begin the urban farm.
The municipality, which has the greatest amount of unused urban space in Israel, agreed to lease the land and waive taxes for five years. For longtime residents of the Gimmel neighborhood, it was a big change: The area had been neglected for the past 20 years.
Growing food in the city is an exercise in adaptability – taking what the urban environment offers, and preparing it for farming. But farming isn’t always prepared for the city. Once the rubble was cleared, the land needed tilling.
For a tractor with a rotary tiller, the job would have taken two hours, but tilling rates are daily. Instead of shelling out the extra cash, Earth’s Promise did everything by hand. Ganson hit another roadblock when he was trying to buy organic seeds: Minimum orders started at roughly 500 times more than what he wanted.
“Traditional agriculture has no idea how to deal with us,” he says. Instead, the Earth’s Promise staff and an “amazing volunteer force” are finding their own solutions.
“That’s the beautiful part,” he says.
“Agriculture has been lost – to factory farming, to massive transport systems.
It’s become so complex, we’ve forgotten how simple it is. But everybody who is interested in seeing their food grow and where it comes from has the right to that.”
Moreover, he continues, “every person has a need to interact with the soil, to pay attention to the smaller things, to see how your food grows from seed to plant to fruit into your mouth. I think that’s transformative...spiritual.”
Israeli agriculture already holds a type of spiritual reverence, connected as it is with Zionism and the country’s emergent nationhood. It is, as Ganson puts it, “a holy cow” – a highly innovative, well-accomplished industry. Every year, fewer farmers produce more food with greater sustainability. This is generally a good thing.
Fewer farmers in the countryside, however, mean more (former) farmers in the city. And it’s not just farmers.
Cities are swelling with more people who bring new challenges, questions and needs.
“Leaving the countryside for the city is something blessed, because that’s the only way that we human beings can exist sustainably, in our cities,” Ganson says.
“But we have to create our cities in a sustainable manner.”
For him, that sustainability must be inclusive. It’s not just reconnecting people with the land and their food’s growth cycle. It’s about weaving diverse groups into a tight-knit community.
“We are located in the middle of a neighborhood, so we have constant interaction with the neighbors. That’s important,” he says.
These neighbors can create their own cycle of knowledge-sharing and skill-building. His goal is to train a core group of urban farmers and expand their efforts throughout Beersheba. He plans to hold courses and teach people how to grow in a city environment. The Gimel farm, he hopes, is just a starting point to help inspire people and spark a larger system of urban farms.
“The only way that urban agriculture can take shape and form in any place is to have a network of food-producing farms,” he says.
In Beersheba, it makes sense to begin this network on public land. There’s plenty of it. If Ganson’s vision is to be realized, however, it will demand more creative ways of growing.
“We have to be active in planning our cityscapes,” Ganson says. “It’s part of our democratic obligation to society.”