Vine and fig tree: Restoring agriculture in the Holy Land
Amidst political strife and a firing range on the West Bank, the Zimmermans farm, market and sanctify the land

Combining biblical rituals with remarkable flexibility, the Zimmermans have thrived because of their faith ... and because of their ability to shift from export markets, to local markets, to value-added products in response to the pressures of war and politics.

By Yigal Deutscher
January 7, 2005

-Alon Zimmerman's world is in many ways a rejection
of the chaos around him, in many others, a reflection.

Amazement at Canaan’s bounty
replaced by demands on the land

Alon's Now aspires to the past. All through their years of wandering through the desert, divine nourishment was obvious to the Hebrew people, flowing down from the sky in the form of Manna. Immediately upon arrival in this land (the Biblical Canaan), the miracle was concealed in the form of plant growth. This was finally an interface with God, a chance for the people to bring forth and create blessing rather than continue to effortlessly receive.

"This amazement in food must have been so real, so electric for the ancient Hebrews," Alon imagines. They were farmers, living a healthy, simple life, belonging to extended families united in work. Classifications such as organic and sustainable did not exist; there was no need when all interactions with the natural were healthy ones. All activities came out of this shared knowledge of the people, a powerful, common wisdom grounded in a deep-rooted awareness of the spiritual within the physical.

You cannot force the past on to the present, though. Modern Israel has turned those images into relics. Arable land is being lost under highways and sprawl. "No one cares for land anymore; we have lost our roots in the place where we were first blessed with them. Israelis have separated themselves from holy work; put themselves in the position of taking and receiving. The privilege of working this land was given to us by God and we happily handed it to others."

Cheap Arab labor was taken advantage of for years. Since the Intafada, it has become the Thais. A group of them are found on almost every farm in the country. “The timeless influence that is in the air, in the soil, in all the natural elements of the country is free to all, if only Israelis would open themselves to it. Instead, it is the western industrial agriculture that is heavily relied on, a new science replacing an ancient wisdom.”


Where we are:
Neot Smader Kibbutz

The Zimmerman family farm is located between Arab-controlled Nablus (Shechem). and an Israeli army firing zone.

Editor's Note:

Yigal Deutscher had already spent the summer of 2003 training in sustainable agricultural and Jewish spirituality when he came to our website and noticed our standing challenge to:

Help us find farmers from many nations willing to tell their stories in small doses over time, as their lives unfold and their farms develop.

He set high goals, and he delivered in finding and profiling farmers who are making a difference. In this contested land of with its millennia of occupations, ravages and civilizations, farming with ecological foundations faces harshness from the climate, political tension and a conventionally oriented food economy.

The journey begins in the southern deserts, leads us north through the West Bank and continues all the way up until we near the Lebanon/Syria borders.

Where we have been:
Elaine Solowey at Kibbutz Ketura is a California native. Elaine Solowey is a scientist with a mission, evaluating plants from around the world in the harsh Arava desert. She wants to discover "small steps towards abundance" (her book title) for the coming years of harsher climates around the world.

"The well-being of the world depends on agricultural stability and health. No one seems to understand this."

Kibbutz Neot Smadar About 20 years ago, a group of unacquainted urbanites formed to explore issues of community: what is means and how is it formed. The place is an experiment to live out what they’ve agreed upon -- a healthy community based on self-sufficiency that includes organic orchards and farms, natural building, a flock of goats, and much more.

“[The organic farmer] made it all seem like a puzzle to us, the connections he was trying to make between plant and earth, plant and plant, human and earth. This was his lifework, a never ending one."

Where we are going:
Beit Elisha at Kibbutz Harduf …is Israel's only Biodynamic farm, but one so large that it is also the country's largest supplier of organic produce, from veggies to cheeses. It is also a working agricultural kibbutz -- one of the last in Israel -- whose wholistic environment provides a healing medium for members with developmental disabilities.

"Everything needed to sustain and allow the continuation of creation is already here, given to us with the first light. All we have to do is harness it, gather a small, potent dose and apply." Gadi, farmer.

Alon's hands wear his emotions.

The dirt behind his fingernails, filling the lines and cracks of his skin, are stains of devotion.

His fingers wrap around a silver goblet, full with dry red wine, reflecting the eyes of those peering in. A drop escapes and trickles over the side. Prayer sanctifies the wine, which sanctifies the moment.

Alon Zimmerman and Rachel, his wife, sit with their eight children sharing food and song. This day, fields will not be watered, seeds will not be sown, weeds will not be pulled, compost will not be spread, nor a harvest reaped. The work of the week is dignified by abstaining from it. Creation again returns to the Creator. This is the meditation of Shabbat, from sundown Friday until the same time Saturday.

"Just as Joseph blessed his brothers with food during a time of drought, this region has been blessed with abundant fertility."
After a fine sleep, morning prayers, and a festive lunch, Alon and I walk through the Samarian hills surrounding Itamar, his community. Slowly, they lift themselves from the ground, like a cluster of old men rising from bed.

"When the Hebrew people entered Israel, that is where they buried the bones of Joseph," Alon tells me, pointing at present-day Shechem. "Just as Joseph blessed his brothers with food during a time of drought, this region has been blessed with abundant fertility."

Abundance, devastation, erosion

The land was divided and settled, a portion to each of the 12 tribes of Israel. Terraces were cut into the hills and cisterns were dug. The land's history is full with wars and devastation. The Romans cleared the predatory wildlife for their games. The Turks cut the trees and overgrazed their animals. The rich, dark soil is now all on the valley floor. We are standing on exposed rock and thorny bushes. We continue walking, exploring limited space.

Itamar spreads out over one of the hilltops, enclosed by protective metal fencing and barbed wire. Alon does not cross the valley to visit the burial site of Joseph these days. We are in the middle of the West Bank and Shechem is Arab-controlled. Israelis and Palestinians neighbor one another and the only relation between them is competing death tolls. There is an isolation that penetrates the air.

A five-minute walk from Itamar begins an Israeli army firing zone. Alon adopted the no-man’s land between. He has been farming it for the last 20 years. Truckloads of soil were brought from the valley below and set on the hill, giving him more than 20 inches of topsoil. He erected a hoop house above the improved area, covering almost 2 acres of land.

Spun horticultural fabric, shade cloth, or no covering at all fit each crop respectfully. Strawberries are harvested from November to August, an extended season that produces 4 tons per quarter acre. During the winter, the porous coverings allow snow and rain to bring in nitrogen. Onion and garlic grow open to the elements. Cucumbers, peppers, and tomatoes are the summer crops. Livestock lives undercover, as well.

Beyond the structure, grape vineyards as well as orchards of apples, apricots, and figs have been planted on the ancient terraces that mark his land.

"The government doesn't invest in us; the banks won't bother with us," he says. Relocation is a constant threat. Supported farms get a packinghouse, trucking. Any available land is offered to them, and then advisors arrive to share advice and knowledge.

In retrospect, Alon is grateful that this special treatment did not come to him -- advisors would have only arrived with a menu of poisons. Instead, he received a forced education in self-sufficiency, a blessing in itself.

Surviving through flexibility

Alon's personal survival is due to flexibility, a willingness to adapt to the volatile reality around him. The Zimmermans were the first in Israel to work with organic strawberries, exporting them to England. The competition was fierce. Conventional farmers in Europe were flooding the market with organic produce, switching to chemical-free production just because the prices were higher.

Pulling themselves from the international market, they began growing a variety of vegetables for an organic distributor in Israel. Once the Palestinian Intifada began, though, there were new problems to face. Trucks were no longer sent into the disputed region, leaving the Zimmermans without a way to channel their produce to the rest of the country.

Alon's first reaction was to get his vegetables to the distributor on his own. This meant driving through what was just about a full-on war zone. "No one knew who I was. My role became the common enemy. Arabs were throwing rocks at my car. So were Israelis. Soldiers from both sides were shooting at one another."

By the time he reached his destination, the produce was ruined and he had no buyer.

"No one knew who I was. My role became the common enemy. Arabs were throwing rocks at my car. So were Israelis. Soldiers from both sides were shooting at one another."
Selling fresh vegetables was no longer a viable option for them.

So he completely rearranged and organized his fields with new intention. The family’s business is now in jams, fruit leathers, pickles, spices, granola, and soup mixes. Growing, processing, and packaging have all become part of the home operation. When the market price is exceptionally high, the vegetables are sold fresh. Otherwise, the produce is brought directly to their home and dealt with.

While Israeli vegetable prices have remained the same over the years, taxes, water, and farming materials continually rise. The extended shelf life and value-added products of processing is what keeps them financially alive.

Seeing blessings, finding synergy

Ancient Jewish agricultural rules reveal ecological, biological principles

The past Alon dreams of – when Israelis intentionally cherished God’s land -- can be tapped into through ancient agricultural mitzvot, religious laws. These are the remnants of one of the first extensive sustainable farming systems in history, based on spiritual elements as much as the physical. The laws are all recorded in the Bible, applied long before the appearance of chemical farming. More>

Alon works the land in a kipa and tzizit, traditional Jewish garments that remind him of a divine presence. A thick beard covers half his face. The wisdom of processing fresh crops into more stable forms is explained in religious terms. "Everything exists as a blessing. Our job is to make arrangements and opportunities to connect one blessing to the next."

The market calls only for the best-looking strawberries, uniformin shape, color, and texture. When he was harvesting fresh for the market, 30 percent of the plant yield would remain on the crop, useless to him, rotting in place. “This is a bracha levatala, a refusal of divine sustenance," he explains.

With processing, Alon has found a way to utilize whatever the plant may offer. Every healthy strawberry is harvested. Once the green tops are sliced off, all the berries are equally valuable for the pot. The same goes with all other crops grown.

The revelations that came while he was adapting to processing motivated him to alter his growing system, striving towards a synergy among the farm components. Loops within loops, each whole system feeding another. The new goal is to create a closed unit where all needs can be generated on-site, without further inputs.

The crop plots are rotated every year, with one section devoted to the growing of a green manure, usually a legume. These highly nutritious plants – some of which go to seed to become the next year's weeds -- are fed to his chickens and sheep. The animal pen is rotated along with the crop plots, de-weeding and manuring the land for the next growing season.

Under each plant is a microclimate housing a variety of natural predators, including spider mites, parasitic wasps, ladybugs, even the praying mantis.

Mimicking the ancient cisterns dug into the hill, the heavy rains of winter collected by the roof structures of the hot houses are sent to a reservoir where carp are grown. A biological filter cleans the water; dried algae and fish wastes are incorporated into the living soil.

The closed-loop biological unit Alon is striving for is one that involves a communal effort. He does not have the time or energy to create a sufficient home garden to meet all the needs of his family. A grassroots support network exists among the Israeli farmers of the region. "We sell to each other at low prices; we help each other with transportation needs, with spreading nylon over the hoop houses." Every morning, a bottle of goat's milk is found by Alon's doorstep; a year's supply of milk traded for a share in the strawberry harvest.

Boiling berries into profit

The home is their factory. On the kitchen table, fruit leathers are rolled and packaged. Industrial sized bags of organic sugar and oats line the walls, like sandbags against a flood. Boxes of freshly picked strawberries are stacked in the corner, awaiting use. In the basement, various end products line the shelves. Jams are boiling on the stove. Fruit leathers are in the driers.

The action is constant. Each day brings new volunteers. The work ends after midnight and begins again early in the morning. While Alon works the fields, Rachel processes the raw materials. "For the first year, it was all trial and error,” Rachel says. “We threw away more than we made. The recipes in the books were useless. Once we had consistency in taste, I went selling from door to door. In those days, I just wouldn't sleep.”

Now, word of mouth spares her. Customers call in their orders and pick them up. When delivering becomes necessary, they rely on a neighbor’s goodwill. Alon and Rachel have neither car nor driver’s license.

Rachel and Alon make the perfect yin-yang couple. They are even two separate companies, divided for tax benefits. Alon sits at the table with configurations and formulas. His plans include methane converters, solar- and wind-generated power, even hydroponics. He laughs to himself, absorbed in his dreams.

Rachel silently and sternly runs from the boiling jam to the ringing phones, taking orders from customers. "We keep it simple. Don't grow more than you can use. Don't sell to stores or distributors. Don't take orders you can't keep. Don't ever, ever get into debt. And I can still hardly contain any of this. There is no time for anything else, no money for extra help."

The sweets are their best selling products. "Do you have any idea how jam is made?" Rachel asks me. "The fruits are boiled, killing all nutritional value. Then sugar is added. This is what everyone wants so this is what I make." Her first profession was a nutritionist, specializing in macrobiotic diets. She is disturbed by her own creations.

These marital and vocational partners are slowly making sense of their tightly integrated enterprises, even as they imagine expansion and more complexity. Alon is busy with plans for a proper small-scale factory, fueled by alternative energy. Rachel is thinking of new products, those with ingredients high in protein. Both are looking eagerly at their oldest children, soon to be finished with high school.

Yet there is no permanence for all their sacrifice and investment. Nothing is certain with such unstable political surroundings. Only the intention strives for the eternal. "The only claim I have to the land is a religious one,” he says. “It has nothing to do with the U.N." and its efforts to bring stability to the region. Alon's identity belongs to the land which, he believes, is an extension of the Bible.

"Land is not a prostitute. It is not something to be traded back and forth, to be picked and hacked at like a piece of inanimate property. The land is a living force which belongs to God."
"Land is not a prostitute. It is not something to be traded back and forth, to be picked and hacked at like a piece of inanimate property. The land is a living force which belongs to God."

The politics of land belong to the human ego. The politics of land stem from desires of control and ownership. As the land surrounding him is consumed by such politics, Alon approaches the soil, water, and sun in prayer. He does not farm for financial reward, nor does he farm to claim ownership.

He farms so God will know that there are still those that rejoice in the role of caretaker. The map is not the territory and the territory is irrelevant. To some it may be the West Bank, to others Samaria.

To Alon, the land is simply home.