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
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
Neot Smader Kibbutz
The Zimmerman family farm is located between Arab-controlled
Nablus (Shechem). and an Israeli army firing zone.
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:
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:
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."
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.
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
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.
||"Just as Joseph blessed his brothers
with food during a time of drought, this region has been blessed
with abundant fertility."
"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,
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.
Selling fresh vegetables was no longer a viable option for them.
||"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."
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
Jewish agricultural rules reveal ecological, biological
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
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
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
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
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.