Growing food in the desert

By Samantha Hulkower

In Israel 'The Negev' is shorthand for the vast expanse of desert in the southern portion of the country. The area is sparsely populated compared to the rest of the land - less than three-quarters of a million people, both Jews and Beduoins. Former Prime Minister David Ben Gurion was always enthralled by the Negev, hence the university with his name is situated here. He envisioned millions of Jews settling in the south. So far his vision hasn't met his expectations, but his beloved desert is blooming in other ways.

The Negev has an R&D center that is responsible for developing new technologies and plant breeds the rest of the country utilizes. For example, the desert is mostly able to bloom due to the creation of drip irrigation. The process, where small amounts of water 'drip' out of a hose to irrigate the crop was actually invented in the Negev at Kibbutz Hatzerim, outside of Beersheva, in the 1960s. The kibbutz patented the technology, known today as Netafim, which is used all over the world. The controlled drip of the irrigation is actually what gives the cherry tomatoes grown in the region their distinctly sweet flavor. Necesity is the mother of invention, and the often harsh climate of the desert breeds many revolutionary innovations. 

While the blistering summers may not be to everyone's liking, the fact that the desert is so much warmer than the rest of the country means it can grow produce 10 months out of the year - delivering fresh, ripe tomatoes and peppers in the middle of the winter. Israel exports not only within the country - but to the whole world. In fact, Israel's number one agricultural export isn't even an edible - it's flowers! The Scarlett South Festival every February in the Negev gives tourists a chance to wander through the fields of flowers, before they are harvested and sent overseas. 

Growing the produce in greenhouses not only protects the fruits and vegetables from the sun and dust, but also allows for innovative ways to grow the food - such as strawberries from the rafters. Grown hydroponically, that is in nutrient-enriched water rather than in soil, it removes the need to fumigate the crop from soil-dwelling pests and makes harvesting much easier. Organic agriculture is a big business, and Israel's vegetables are eagerly bought up by health- conscious Europeans. 

Farmers have also found ways to utilize other aspects of the region's environment to their advantage. The aquifer tends to be too salty for most uses - but that is perfect for argan trees. The tree's oil has many cosmetic uses, and is added to many skin and hair products. 

As unbelievable as it might sound - Israel is also growing fish in the desert. In the Aravah region of the Negev, highly efficient fish ponds grow guppies for export as pets to Europe. 

There is also a bustling tourism industry sprouting up around the farms. People from Europe and the US head to the Negev to sample the delicious food first hand, while also enjoying the beautiful environment around them. Days spent visiting the area's wineries and learning about sustainably designed kibbutzim are enough to entertain anyone for a week. 

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