Seeds of success

Plants grafted from the Hishtil nursery use fewer pesticides, reduce labor and yield more crops

Organic Peppers521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Organic Peppers521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel is a world leader in agricultural development, but when you’re pushing a shopping cart up and down the produce aisles in your local supermarket, you’re probably not thinking about that. If you’re like me, you’re just looking for fresh, flavorful vegetables. That’s what usually concerns the ordinary shopper.
What most of us don’t know is that behind the scenes, one Israeli company is continually developing the technology that gives us the beautiful tomatoes and cucumbers we take for granted.
One of the best things about it is that their eyes are always focused on sustainability.
Hishtil, originally a plant nursery located on the religious moshav of Nehalim, began in 1974 as the project of one farmer, Yehezkel Dagan. Today, 90 million seedlings, plugs and cuttings leave the company’s five nurseries every year, with a forecast of 100 million in local sales and exports for 2013. The company specializes in the development of disease-resistant crops that thrive on little irrigation.
The age-old way to make crops grow is to sow seeds and wait to see how many sprout. Then the farmer would try to ensure the survival of the seedlings, which struggled against unpredictable weather changes and plant diseases, hoping for the best. But then Hishtil developed a system that almost guarantees crop success, raising sustainable agriculture by many degrees and almost erasing the farmer’s historical worries.
Marketing manager Menni Shadmi gave Metro an overview of Hishtil’s green philosophy.
“The more we researched and understood plants, the more clearly we saw the damage that agricultural chemicals do to the environment – and to people eating those plants. But the need to raise healthy vegetables with good crop yields doesn’t go away, and our climate isn’t exactly hospitable to agriculture. So we researched historical sources from thousands of years ago to ancient agricultural systems from Japan, China and Korea.
We adapted the idea of grafting from them, suited to our modern needs.”
Grafting seems simple. The desired plant is grafted onto rootstocks of especially strong and healthy plants of the same kind. But it’s not as simple as it seems. The desired characteristics of the rootstock – ability to thrive on little water, saline soil, a hot climate – won’t take to just any vegetable cousin.
“Each vegetable needs to be matched to the appropriate rootstock,” explains Shadmi. “We’re always searching for new combinations. Most of our research focuses on these botanical match-ups.”
Success is clear. Israeli produce has much longer seasons today than in the state’s early years. This is the result of Hishtil’s innovative nursery management, where seedlings come to maturity on staggered schedules and yield produce quickly. And there is much less need to spray pesticides on the growing crops, as they successfully resist most of the viruses, insects and fungi that afflict vegetables.
Asked about organic choices, public relations manager Ofir Afslander says,“We do have some organic vegetables, but the organic market isn’t our focus. Because let’s face it – most crops still need a certain amount of spraying to survive. But our grafted crops require far less pesticides than ever before.”
This raises Israeli exports to the quality demanded by Europe, whose standards allow only minimal pesticides on produce.
Afslander adds, “With these diseaseresistant plants, there’s no longer a need to fumigate the soil with bromide, which was standard agricultural practice in many countries.”
Methyl bromide is a toxic material used to destroy pests in the soil. It dissipates quickly into the atmosphere, contributing significantly to the destruction of the ozone layer. Exposure to the gases released from bromide-treated soil may cause nervous and respiratory system failure and damage eyes and skin.
In 1987, 27 countries signed the Montreal Protocol, a treaty committing the signers to protect the planet from ozone depletion. Israel signed the treaty in January 1988. Today, 196 countries have signed. One of the steps agreed to is phasing out production of ozonedepleting products.
The advantage of naturally diseaseresistant agriculture is obvious: there is less need for pesticides, which means there’s less thinning of the ozone layer that protects us from the sun’s ultraviolet rays.
“I just received an assessment of how much methyl bromide gas is reduced yearly, in Israel and abroad, by the Hishtil grafting method. Eight thousand tons less,” Afslander says proudly.
The grafting method is more environmentally friendly than genetic crop modification, which environmentalists claim is actually diminishing the world’s food supply.
Stronger seedlings require less fertilizer, an important economic consideration for farmers in developing countries.
Turkey, for example, grows Hishtil seedlings in the company’s Antalya branch and exports the grown crops to several Balkan countries.
Grafted vegetables also grow relatively quickly, needing only three weeks in the greenhouse instead of four. This is a significant saving on energy and labor.
Israel’s farmers no longer worry over survival rate of their crops, or the need to irrigate with lots of expensive water.
Receiving trays of pre-started Hishtil vegetables and herbs, they can calculate crop size and growth rate, matching quantity to the size of their farms.
The resulting bigger crop yields have made an impact not only on the Israeli market, but also in Turkey, South Africa, Italy, Bosnia and Greece, countries whose agricultural exports have significantly increased due to their using Hishtil technology.
Apart from sustainable agriculture, Hishtil has also invested in some fun, developing new plants such as a basil tree, a tomaccio (a tomato that dries out, like a raisin, on the stalk) and a pepper trio plant that bears red, yellow and orange peppers, each with its own distinctive flavor.
There is also an especially spicy oregano variety, which caters to lovers of Italian food with a little chili heat in it.
And for those who love mint tea, there’s a new variety of mint with sweet, almost chocolate overtones.
“We try to produce new flavors in herbs and spices,” says Afslander, “not just grow the same ones everybody already knows.”
Hishtil is the biggest exporter of herbs and spices in Israel. In our local markets, it’s the green secret behind the abundance of colorful, flavorful produce piled up on vendor’s stands in the local shuk and in supermarket produce aisles.
“You don’t see ‘Hishtil’ on your produce,” says Afslander with a smile. “It’s not a brand name like chocolate or dairy. But it’s what makes our vegetables great.”