Finding Nemo…in the Arava Desert

The country’s most arid strip is transforming into a blossoming oasis.

Clownfish! 521 (photo credit: Sharon Udasin)
Clownfish! 521
(photo credit: Sharon Udasin)
In the middle of the Arava Desert – where vivid sunlight warms the cheeks even on a wintry day – sweet orange peppers grow en masse, lush flowers for European markets blossom in rows, and bright orange-and-white-striped clownfish swim circles inside large round saltwater tubs.
“The concept is doing the impossible,” Ossi Winter, tourism coordinator for the Yair Research Station at Central and Northern Arava Research and Development, near Hatzeva, says during a tour of the area last week.
Arava Research and Development, based at the Yair Research Station and funded jointly by Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund and the government, is a 4-hectare agricultural hub for farming experts who test out new growing mechanisms for edible and ornamental crops in extreme desert conditions. A future visitors’ center at the site, which has been operating since 1991, is slated to open in part this October; it will include an 11-minute introductory film on the site, and eventually contain a gift shop, restaurant and information center for tourists, Winter said.
While the dry desert area blooms with vegetation today, American experts in the early 1950s deemed the area uninhabitable, according to Winter.
“That was five years before the first settlement, Ein Yahav, started – 1959,” she says.
Winter herself lives in Tzukim, one of the newest Arava communities, a bit south of Yair Station. From her home, she can see all the way to Petra.
“I have the most amazing sunrises,” she says. “I’m still not connected to official electricity, but this will come next week.”
The Arava communities – 3,000 residents in seven villages – are not connected to the country’s natural water system, and depend instead on their own 50 local wells, of which only 3 percent are freshwater. That fraction is ever decreasing as farmers use more and more of the supply to cultivate their lands, according to Winter. Each of the communities now has a small desalination facility for drinking water.
However, most of the plants grown at the local farms and at Yair Station can survive with saltwater, aside from strawberries and some of the flowers.
In addition to water issues, acquiring ample arable sand for these plants can be difficult, as the land must be completely covered with a 30-centimeter layer of this soil to allow for growth, the tourism coordinator explains. While many families would like to move to the Arava communities and establish farms in the region, there isn’t enough of this type of soil available at the moment, as sand in Israel is lacking and buying arable sand from Jordan is now nearly impossible.
“We are trying to build here a basic situation where the next generation can also make a living, in terms of water, in terms of soil,” she says.
“Three thousand people in this area is not a sustainable community. We have to grow, we have to reach 10,000 people.”
While flowers still bloom in the Arava’s farms, there are fewer than in the past – the Arava once made up 10% of the country’s total flower exports (mostly to Europe), but now that proportion is much lower, and flowers only make up about 3% of the region’s crops. Gradually, as the European market has switched over to preferring pot flowers over bouquet flowers, Israelis have spread their skills to competing markets in Kenya and Ethiopia – and Israeli specialties, like the lisianthus, require a lot of manpower, according to Winter.
“You need to be in contact with the flower,” she says.
Labor is a problem, however, says Arava Research and Development director Eilon Gadiel, as “Israelis are not standing in line to work here,” and the government limits the number of foreign workers who can come to do the job.
THE MOST popular crop in the region has become different varieties of the pepper, but particularly a small, sweet orange variety, according to Winter.
Alongside peppers in one of the research station’s greenhouses grow tomatoes of every shape and size, with vines that can reach lengths of up to 20 meters and must be trellised to stakes for optimal growth – a demanding job in terms of manpower.
Also in the station are zucchini, eggplants and melons of all kinds, as well as fruits and vegetables unique to only one or two farmers in the region – like red green beans and physalis, a “groundcherry” that grows only in subtropical areas.
Next to the row of watermelon patches, one watermelon sits in a box; researchers hope it will grow into the mold of a Japanese square watermelon. In an adjacent row, an ornamental pumpkin in the shape of a pentagon sticks out conspicuously from its vine.
“This looks like a dreidel – it’s our Hanukka miracle,” Winter says, laughing.
For the more conventional vegetables like the pepper, the region’s farmers have already established a growth cycle from August through April – starting from buds in a nursery until the full-grown capsicums (peppers) transform from green to reds, yellows and oranges, and make their way to European markets.
“The circle goes like this until Passover,” after which the farmers must begin preparing their soil for the next season, “another circle,” Winter says.
Meanwhile, to protect these valuable crops, rather than using pesticides to clear the peppers of aphids – also known as plant lice – researchers have pinpointed a type of predator aphidius wasp that can eliminate the aphids naturally, by laying their eggs on the aphids’ backs.
The pepper has become so popular in the Arava that 70% of the Arava’s farming population has taken to growing the vegetable.
But this prevalence of peppers is not necessarily a good thing, Winter warns, explaining: “One unknown bacterium at the beginning of the season, and the whole area can become empty and poor. We try [to make sure] the area has more possibilities.”
Gadiel adds, “We don’t want everyone to grow peppers. We have become sort of a monoculture.”
One new possibility is strawberries.
However, these require freshwater, so the station must employ its desalination unit when watering these fruits – which hang from stakes up high, in coco-peat soil, for maximum use of space, Winter explains. But strawberries require careful temperature and water quality maintenance, so she is not optimistic about their future success as a desert crop.
IN ADDITION to the fruits, vegetables and flowers that populate the region, swarms of tropical fish have taken fondly to the dry desert climate. In fact, there are 18 aquaculture farms in the area, most of which are freshwater but three or four of which are seawater, Gadiel explains.
Initially, Yair Guron, the namesake and founder of the station, had suggested that researchers try growing edible fish for the local market, but experiments with this ultimately did not pan out because of the sheer size and expense of the tanks for such fish. In the past few years, however, ornamental aquaculture has taken root at the research complex instead, and large tubs of bright orange “Nemo” clownfish dominate a warehouse that also contains smaller glass tanks of various tropical fish that researchers are attempting to breed.
These vividly colored creatures are being produced both at the station and by farming families in the area, largely for export to Europe. Rather than destroying indigenous ocean coral reefs to trap their pets, buyers are now able to purchase fish of the same quality, but raised in captivity, researchers explain.
The key to ensuring that the brilliant Nemos and other tropical fish in the Arava have long, healthy lives is the continuous replication of breeding trials within the bounds of the station, according to Nitzan Reiss-Hevlin, research coordinator for aquaculture. Meanwhile, the researchers are constantly trying to make the growth process cheaper, so that these fish become less expensive to buyers. One such way was a recent trial environment using natural aquifer brackish water, rather than desalinated water combined with sea salt.
“It worked – we were amazed,” Reiss-Hevlin says.
However, she adds, “the problem with Israel is that we don’t have enough varieties of fish.”
As such, she is always trying out new types of fish and corals, the most recent addition being the Zebrasoma flavescens – known commonly as the “yellow tang” – a popular, vibrantly yellow fish that she imported from Hawaii but that can also be found naturally in the Eilat reefs.
“All the world wants to buy this fish,” she says.
Another new fish being bred for the area is the Cardinal tetra, a freshwater fish with a deep red underside and fluorescent blue top, a captive breeding success for Reiss-Hevlin that Gadiel says he hopes farmers will be able to produce commercially in two years.
In addition to increasing the varieties of the fish, the station and farmers could benefit from enlarging the quantities of fish they produce, he adds.
“What we have to do here is see if we can enlarge the package of shipment,” he says. “Because when you ship fish, the dealer won’t come to pick up just one package of one kind.
But we have to find the right fish that can grow here and have commercial feasibility.”
Not only can methods for developing healthy, diverse groups of fish bring more money into the region, they can also attract more people and entrepreneurs to come live in the area’s small communities – bringing about a more stable and populated Arava.
“In order to absorb more families, we need to [expand] the possibilities,” Gadiel says.