Vegetables in the Israeli Desert

This article was first published in The GROWER magazine following a trip to the UK and Israel to study water policy.

The Desert Blooms: vegetables from recycled water in Israel


We left Tel Aviv amid high security, the day after fighting began in Gaza. It was a sobering end to a tour of irrigation and horticulture in Israel.

In Israel, land is owned by the state, and a licence granted to farm it. There is, relatively speaking, a lot of land. There is virtually no water. Water is managed by the State, in trust on behalf of the people.

It’s a nation that desalinates almost a billion cubic metres of water a year, and uses 700 million for agriculture. The key is that agriculture is the second use: almost all ag water is recycled from cities. Parallel pipelines carry fresh and recycled water for thousands of kilometres around Israel. The huge infrastructure cost is borne by the state – it is a matter of national importance.

Much of our tour focused on drip irrigation, including a visit to its developers at Kibbutz Hatzerim, the home of Netafim. Hatzerim is 8 km west of Beersheba in the Negev desert. In such an inhospitable environment, the need for detailed management and high efficiency rapidly becomes obvious.

We visited the Arava Valley, south of the Dead Sea. This is the border with Jordan, currently peaceful after a treaty in 1994. Don’t jump the fence though, the explosive mines are still there, and flooding has redistributed them to who knows where.

In an area with 50mm of rain (if any) and 2,000 mm of evapotranspiration, water is a valuable commodity. The soils are saline, the water is saline. Drip is about the only way plants can be made to survive.  And survive they do, in soil brought hundreds of kilometres, with water brought hundreds of kilometres, to produce crops for consumption thousands of kilometres away in Europe. Why?

The key for the state, it seems, is occupation and security. The key for the farmers is a climatic opportunity that allows excellent production when Europe is freezing. Growing almost exclusively in tunnel houses of plastic or shade, yields can be very good and quality excellent. With water supplied to the district by the state, and to the gate by local agencies, it is supply that is limiting more than cost.

A typical farm is about 4ha, although some are increasing through aggregation. Key crops are capsicums (Bell Peppers) and table tomatoes, which together account for most production. All crops must be removed for a period around July to break pest and disease cycles. Farmers believe the policy is effective, as they have very low levels of disease or virus.  At this time it is too hot to grow anything anyway, and most people head to the coast for a holiday.

Farmers spoke of constraints. New development needs water which is seldom available. Their children want to move to the cities and high paying professions. Tomatoes produce about 20kg/m2, which farmers say is profitable. But they require three times the labour of capsicums, and some farmers just cannot get enough labour to increase production.

Innovation and entrepreneurship are alive and well. We visited a huge reservoir for an almond, olive and grape farm of several hundred hectares. To our Kiwi noses and eyes the water was filthy; to them it was gold. In the distance was its source, Arad, a city of 23,000 people drinking and flushing desalinated water and supporting Israeli agriculture.

Dan Bloomer, LandWISE

My thanks to Andrew Gregson of the NSW Irrigators’ Council for organising the study tour, colleagues Andrew Curtis (IrrigationNZ) and Hayden Cudmore (Australian Rice Growers’ Association) and those who hosted us along the way. Dan’s visit to Israel was self-funded.


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