Monday, July 23, 2007

Shomron Trip V: Organic Agriculture

Previous posts in this series:
Shomron Trip I: The Ride to Shchem
Shomron Trip II: Mayim Chayim
Shomron Trip III: On Mount Grizzim
Shomron Trip IV: Itamar

Settlements like Maaleh Adumim and Kochav Yaakov have experienced rapid growth over the years due to their proximity to Jerusalem, providing them with the ample employment and cultural benefits of city life. In the hills of northern Shomron, 40 minutes' drive from coastal cities like Netanya, 40 minutes being an eternity in Israel, each community has had to find creative ways of self-sufficiency. In Itamar's case, the settlers turned to agriculture. Shchem (Nablus) has sprawled outward and already consumed all the arable land in the valleys, so the settlers had to explore new forms of agriculture.

Alon Zimmerman's hilltop farm.

Because Arabs can not sell land to Jews on pain of death at the hands of their brethren, Itamar has focused on transforming the rocky, dead hilltops into productive agricultural land.

Yours truly, in front of Itamar.

our tour of Alon Zimmerman's farm included new fruits in the hothouses. The hothouses provide protection from the strong winds of the exposed hilltops, and provide enough heat to grow trees which would otherwise not survive the harsh environment.

Entering the hothouses.

Alon shows us his products.

Drip irrigation

Apples. These are still "orlah" (covered.) A Jew is required not to touch fruit-bearing trees until the third year after their planting.

Al agriculture is organic, without hazardous pesticides. "Previous conquerors demonstrated that they did not hold the land holy because the agriculture they practiced destroyed it. When the Crusaders conquered Eretz Yisrael, they planted sugar cane. Within three years the sugar cane had completely stripped the soil of its nutrients." Later, he doesn't add, the nomadic Arabs defeated the Crusaders and overgrazed the area.

The Tanach speaks of the great forests which once carpeted the hills and valleys of the Shomron. While today the land outside of Jewish settlements is completely barren and devoid of trees, the name of a nearby Arab village attests to the once plentiful lumber. The village is named Hattib, Arabic for "cut," which implies a village of woodcutters. Historical records indicate that the last trees in the Shomron were felled by the Ottoman Empire during World War I in a failed attempt to build a rail line to reinforce their retreating troops. With the disappearance of the forests which once blanketed the Shomron, the winds carried away precious topsoil and exposed the rocks which lay beneath.

The forests are slowly returning to the Shomron within Jewish settlements.

"We find that God rewards those who respect the land. Since we started using organic techniques, every year, we have harvested more and more."

Strawberry patches.

Strawberries. I've never tasted anything so sweet. As if they had already been dipped in sugar.

Next year, starting in Rosh Hashannah, will be a Shmittah, or sabbatical year. During the Shmittah year, which comes every seven years, all land lays fallow, a sort of sabbath for the soil. There is a controversial halachic loophole, Heter Mechirah, which permits the temporary sale of land to a goy (Jews are permitted to work land owned by goyim,) in order to prevent famine or loss of the land. Hydroponic farming is permitted during Shmittah since the crops do not come into contact with the soil.

"It's a difficult decision, and I'm still not sure what I'm going to do. I might have to do heter mechirah. Of course," he says, glancing at a massive rainwater collection pond he built, "I've been thinking of hydrophonic or fish farming, so maybe I'll take a year and try that out."

Perhaps hydroponic gardening is the answer?

The greatest challenge yet came not from Shmittah but from the Arabs, during the Intifada. It started in September of 2000, right at harvest time.

"One day, the truck just didn't come to take our tomatoes to market. I called the truck driver. He was terrified to come out here. I really didn't know what to do. It seemed like all my crops were going to sit and rot. That night I talked with my wife. All our wives got together, and they started playing with recipes. Pretty soon, they had figured out how to make pasta sauces, sun dried tomatoes, and preserves. Things that would last on the shelves. We opened a factory on the settlement, and were able to save the crop."

Alon's success has been replicated on many of the hilltops of Itamar, stretching out over mile after mile of the once barren hilltops.

Next stop... Hill 851.

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