Seeds for peace
Restoring ancient seed for Arab and Jewish organic cooperation

By Eli Rogosa

Life lessons from
the land

Almost all Ancient Israeli Rabbis were organic farmers, hence the Talmud is abundant with agricultural aphorisms:

“Blessing is only possible in things hidden from sight, as it is said, 'The Lord will command the blessing with thee in thy barns.'

Blessing is only possible with things not under the direct control of the eye. Our rabbi taught: On entering a barn to measure the new grain, say: 'May it be Thy will to send blessings on the work of our hands.'

When one begins to measure: 'Blessed be the Source of Life that sends blessings into this heap.'

But if one has already measured the grain, the prayer is in vain, because blessing is not to be found in anything that has already been weighed, measured or numbered, but only in a thing hidden from sight.”

~ Taanith 8b

“Rabbi Ahai ben Josiah said, 'He who buys grain in the market, to what may he be compared? To a child who is cut off from his mother, and although it is taken to homes of wetnurses, it is not satisfied. And he who buys bread in the market, to what is he compared? To a man who digs his own grave - a wretched, precarious existence. But he who eats of his own produce is like a child reared at his mother's breast.”

~ The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, Avot d'Rabbi Nathan 30:6

“G-d created the world so that all shall live in pleasantness, that all shall be equal, that one shall not lord over the other, and that all may cultivate the land. However, when warrior-minded people multiplied they began to rely on their might, and left off cultivating the land and turned to robbery.”

~ Hochmat haNefesh 22b, Rabbi Judah

For more information

. . . about organic certified heritage grain products produced by the Arab-Jewish Organic Farmers’ Cooperative, the New England Heritage Wheat Project restoring rare cold-hardy heritage bread wheats, and Bread Arts workshops, go to www.growseed.org or contact Eli Rogosa at growseed@yahoo.com.

To learn more about the Sachnin Foodbank Farm, contact Laithi G’Naim at laithig@yahoo.com.

December 14, 2006: A generation ago, the Arab village in Sachnin, in the pastoral Galilee hills of northern Israel, produced its own indigenous, drought-hardy varieties of wheat, and 80 percent of the men were farmers. Each morning, the fragrance of fresh bread emanated from almost every home. Today, a mere 3 percent of the population are farmers, and more than three-quarters of Sachnin families buy mass-produced white pita bread shipped in from industrial bakeries.

Who grows the wheat today? Most of the wheat for Sachnin’s pitas—about 85 percent of it—is now shipped in from subsidized US farmers. This loss of local food production echoes throughout the Israeli food system. Rural communities that were self-sufficient a generation ago have lost their livelihoods due to low-cost imported foods and lack of competitive indigenous varieties.

Loss of indigenous landraces results in loss of local livelihoods

In Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda open-air market, ancient stone buildings with arched portals give way to a colorful tapestry of ethnic peoples and fragrant foods. Abraham and his wife, Yehudit, opened the first Ethiopian shop in Machane, Yehuda, after they arrived in Israel from Gonder, Ethiopia, escaping local crossfire to return to their ancient homeland of Israel. (Ethiopian Jews may be direct descendents of Moses’ children who migrated south after the Exodus, combined with ancestors from the tribe of Dan, who fled when the Kingdom of Judah divided in the 10th century BCE, enriched with descendents from trade relations during King Solomon’s time, perhaps even the Queen of Sheba.)

Today, Ethiopian-Israelis number 100,000. Almost all were traditional farmers in rural mountain villages, but most have joined the ranks of Israel’s low-income, under-employed populations from Third World countries. Few have found ways to adapt their farming methods to compete with high-tech farming. So they resort to shipping their ancient Ethiopian wheat, teff and other traditional foods direct from Ethiopia to family-run markets such as Abraham and Yehudit’s.

It was in Abraham and Yehudit’s market stall that I found emmer (Triticum dicoccum), called ‘Em Ha’Hitach’ or Mother Wheat in Hebrew, the almost-extinct delicious wheat variety that was domesticated in the land of early Israel 12,000-10,000 years ago. Wild emmer (Triticum dicoccoides) still can be found growing in remote fields throughout Israel.

“Do you know what this is?” I asked Abraham incredulously. “Of course, it is aja, (Amharic for emmer),” replied Abraham, with an almost gleeful-hinting smile. “Abraham, this wheat was used for our first matzahs in Egypt.” “Yes,” concurred Abraham, “It has been kept by our people in Ethiopia.” “Why don’t you grow it here to bake matzahs?” “Ah,” he lamented sadly. “Who of our people have farms here in holy Israel? Who would buy our simple foods?”

Arab and Jewish families who were self-sufficient traditional farmers a generation ago have become marginalized in a world of rapid agri-technological advance. Last generation’s family farmers are today’s cheap labor.

The ancient teachings of Israel are rooted in its agricultural heritage of decentralized small-scale farming. The biblical vision, the Talmud and Israel’s ancient laws, documented in the Mishnah, written down in the 2nd and 5th century in the book “The Way of the Seed” or “Seder Zari’im” in Hebrew, explains the principles of food justice, gleaning, tithing and the power of blessing, that are at the heart of the Hebraic tradition. In contrast to Canaanite practices of human and animal sacrifice that evolved from nomadic shepherds, the ancient Israeli farmer believed that the land and the people are one total living ecosystem. In additional to the practices of composting, crop rotation and fallowing, the Israeli understood that healthy soil would only bear nourishing fruit when the people, all of the people, were fed.

After millennia of displacement from the land of Israel, most Israeli farmers jumped into green revolution agriculture with the seeds of modern breeding.

“Israel’s mainstream agriculture is totally Western in its reliance on modern high-yielding hybrids. This, urbanization and habitat erosion threaten the indigenous landraces, many of which date back several centuries, if not to Biblical times.”

~ Israel Gene Bank Report, 1966

“In the West Bank, there is a considerable decline in local varieties due to introduction of hybrid 'high-input' varieties. At least 90 percent of Palestine’s farmers have no irrigation. Both the drought-hardy traditional cultivars and farmers’ traditional knowledge of seed selection are disappearing. There is a critical need to revive traditional varieties in the Palestinian Areas. However the PA has no central seed bank. Existing facilities are weak or non-existent.”

~ M.S. Ali Shtayeh, PhD

The lands of Israel and Palestine, in the southern arch of the Fertile Crescent, are the ancient center of origin for almonds, artichoke, barley, beets and chards, black mustard, celery, chickpea, date palm, emmer, pear, fig, flax, lentil, lettuce, melon, olive, pea, radish and safflower. Wild edibles, herbs and indigenous knowledge of their uses are embedded in both Jewish and Arab traditions. All of this is being lost today due to urbanization.

Traditional Arab and Jewish farmers in Israel depend almost completely upon themselves and other farmers for locally-adapted seed. There are no commercially available indigenous vegetable seeds in Israel with the drought-hardiness on which traditional low-input Middle East farmers depend (20 percent of Israel’s population are citizens of Arab ethnicity who often lack access to irrigation systems). Small-scale organic farmers who grow for local markets do not have any supply of native heirloom vegetable seed, except what they domesticate, select, save and exchange amongst themselves and their neighbors.

The Israel Seed Conservancy

A dynamic circle of farmers, selective seed savers and markets, The Israel Seed Conservancy arose to fill the void. This grassroots consortium of Jewish and Arab small-scale farmers and seed savers are pooling shared genetic resources together to conserve and improve threatened native varieties in the fields of traditional and organic farmers, and to teach cooperative gardening with Arab and Jewish young people (see www.growseed.org/seedstewards.html). The model is adapted from Restoring Our Seed (www.growseed.org), a project, originally funded by SARE, that I founded with C.R. Lawn of FEDCO seeds (www.fedcoseeds.com).

The Israel Seed Conservancy (ISC) has established a biodiversity conservation farm near Jerusalem, works in partnership with Laithi G’naim’s Food Bank Farm in Sachnin (see New Farm series: Vine and Fig Tree), and is a member of the EU-funded Landrace Wheat Working Group. On-farm genetic conservation in the fields of traditional, organic farmers keeps vital the dynamic interaction of indigenous varieties with their pests, predators and pathogens, and the durable resistances needed for robust crops not dependent on agro-chemical protectants.

ISC organizes annual seed exchanges and training for on-farm seed-saving. I quietly exchange open-pollinated seed with Palestinian seed colleagues, under difficult conditions, protecting their identities for safety in a region of conflict. The power of organic farming cooperation and the mutual benefits of sharing seed speak louder than ethnic differences. “We are helping each other to help ourselves,” reports Laithi.

ISC’s work is rooted in four inter-dependent strategies:

  1. Conserve the landrace varieties, the living stories they carry and indigenous knowledge of their cultivation and uses.
  2. Restore the seed into the hands of farmers for selective seed saving.
  3. Integrate seed crops to enhance biodiversity for sheltering habitats for pollinators and predators of insect pests.
  4. Market in ways that benefit small-scale, low-input farmers—the traditional stewards of landraces.

Wheat is the most widely cultivated crop on earth. Heritage wheat’s rich flavor and nutritional value are the very qualities bred out of modern wheat varieties, selected for high yield and uniformity, at the cost of high water demand. Artisan bread bakers prefer heritage wheat’s superior flavor and baking qualities. ISC is restoring rare, ancient indigenous wheats as a strategy to increase food and livelihood security for the region’s neglected traditional farmers. These indigenous heritage wheat varieties have evolved extensive roots system for efficient nutrient scavenging in poor soils, and they thrive in the typical climate extremes of rainy winters and droughty summers.

Emmer (T. diccocum), Einkorn (T. monococcum) and Hourani (T. durum) are delicious little-known wheats that nourished ancient civilizations but today are almost extinct. It is our hope the historic value of these crops, their exceptionally rich flavor, high nutritional value, and capacity to thrive in the soils of their ancestral homeland will create markets that support traditional farmers to continue their heritage of farming.

“If you bring a grain offering of the first fruits to the Lord, offer the crushes heads of the spring grain roasted in the fire.”

~ Leviticus 2:14

"The day after the Passover, the very day they ate of the produce of the Land, the unleavened bread and the parched grain."

~ Joshua 5:11

Instead of purchasing subsidized wheat from industrialized mega-farms in the developed world, the Israel Seed Conservancy hopes to turn the table by restoring the seed of Israel’s diverse small-scale farmers and the traditions of bread-baking and other food arts. The cooperative is restoring emmer to bake organic matzah, einkorn for tasty flatbread with local wild herbs, and Hourani for “parched wheat” using age-old methods.