Vine and fig tree: Restoring agriculture in the Holy Land
Rising from nothing in the desert, idealists now work amid water, orchards, gardens and fish.

At Kibbutz Neot Smader, amazing agriculture achievement is the byproduct of a community of transients dedicated to learning from the land and each other.

By Yigal Deutscher

-Community gathering, planting tomato seedlings.

Where we are:
Neot Smader Kibbutz

Neot Smader is located in the relative isolation of the Arava desert. For the city comforts they left behind the former urbanites must drive roughly 60 km to the South to the border city of Eilat.

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."

Where we are going:
Moshav Itamar: Alon and Rachel Zimmerman at
This West Bank farming couple coaxes an agricultural existence from a no-man’s land between Arab-controlled Nablus (Shechem). and an Israeli army firing zone. Conflict forced changes in crops and marketing that led Alon to devise highly integrated, self-sufficient system of crops, fish, microclimates and livestock.

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.

November 23, 2004: It began with ads, little pieces of paper taped to arbitrary walls and streetlamps of Jerusalem.

They were obscure, inviting questions investigating the human life as it is -- that raw, essential force, not tied to race, religion, or age, which forms our being and actions. Those interested gravitated to one another and began years of intimate communications. This is what it all came down to -- there are no evil peoples or good peoples, only stupid ones.

This was the foundation which allowed growth to begin.

"The lesson that we realized was the fallacy of ideas. In our days, ideas are restricting and cheap. And they are simply ideas, empty of actualization," I was told by the well-traveled Yorum.

I entertain questions about America's food standards -- cheese in a tube?

-The lake, in all its absurdity

They needed a vessel, a place where they could work it all out. The government was contacted regarding the availability of land, then gladly awarded them the abandoned site that was once Kibbutz Shizafun. They arrived, 80 members of this community, to a few mobile homes, a dining hall, an infirmary, and what looked like complete desolation.

Fourteen years later, it all seems a hallucination in an otherwise empty part of the High Arava desert. Neot Smadar is a growing and vibrant community, attempting self-sufficiency in a sustainable manner. The few trees that originally came with the package are now surrounded by organic olive groves and grape vineyards; orchards of peaches, cherries, almonds, apricots, apples, and nectarines; 8 acres of vegetable gardens; a date plantation; and a herd of goats along with an on-site dairy.

But I only perceive what I selfishly look for as I search for honest organic farms. "The agriculture is just a partial component, a by-product of everything else. The people and the process, this is really what makes us organic," I am told one night after dinner. Yoram speaks in a barely audible whisper, as if the words contained the hidden elements of creation. His voice reaches me in slow waves; gaps of silence settle as he sips his herb tea.

"Farming is nothing on its own,
just a toy for grown-ups,”
-- Yoram

Agriculture is more than farming

"Farming is nothing on its own, just a toy for grown-ups,” Yoram says. “It has repeatedly proven itself a failed system." He speaks from experiences in his search for the ideal community

."While I was traveling in America, I heard about a macrobiotic community in Missouri. All I found was a bunch of angry people. There was an organic farming community in Arkansas. Any failed crop or stressful monetary situation unmasked power struggles and ego dominations.

“I also lived with two other families in a beautifully secluded corner of New York. It felt desperate and isolated, just an extension of the self. The kibbutz movement was more of the same, hindered from doing anything new because it was based on the European commune system."

The Zion ideal still intrigues, though. Zion is utopia, and the one that is longed for here will not be based on healthy foods but on human development and relations. To call Neot Smadar a farm would be one-dimensional, even insulting. Rather, this community sees itself as a school, still grappling with the same questions that originally brought them together. They are content with the search.

"We were a bunch of urban dwellers placed in the desert. We needed an education badly," shares Uval, the goat shepherd. So he and some others traveled the country and checked out many different farming systems. To spray (to manage pests) seemed an enchantment with a simple solution, one that required no involvement.

Organic learning never-ending

"This one old man with an organic farm 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,” Uval said. “This was his lifework, never-ending."

Healthy farming fit perfectly into the dimensions they were trying to create for themselves -- a challenge, changing with the seasons, which required many heads and hands together, to investigate and contemplate a solution which would be based on interdependent relationships. So it began.

At 6 a.m., after hot cereals and teas and homemade breads, a collective effort unfolds in the fields. The work of the day is dictated by a list, taped fresh to the dining room wall every morning. The categories and names under them are all in Hebrew, a language with which I am just barely comfortable. I stand before it, my finger passing every name until I find the one which belongs to me. Some days I work with the trees, some days with the vegetables. Other days with the goats. Or building. Or irrigation. Or kitchen. Wherever. My morning is tapped of expectations. The assignments change daily. There can be no ownership of a project, it belongs to all.

Avodah Ne'eimah. Pleasant workings. The morning greeting.

I grow comfortable with assignments in the vegetable gardens. The summer planting season has just begun. The drip irrigation piping has been laid. "When we first arrived, the soil looked like a construction site. A bit of sand and lots of rocks. It was mostly air." But the potential was attractive.

The High Arava Desert allows access to sweet water and a cooler climate than farther south. So the ground is going through a transition period. A layer of humus is building up. Lady bugs are laying eggs under the leaves; earthworms are crawling through the soil. "I even found a bunch of nettles growing," Tesa tells me, full of pride for the weeds.

Compost is heavily relied on. Food and yard wastes, as well as goat manure are supplied by the kibbutz. Chicken and cow manures are added. The compost field covers an acre and a half. It must be watered on a consistent basis to maintain moisture. The ground is sloped, leading to a basin where the used waters are collected and applied on the veggies as compost tea. The pile is turned by the means of a tractor. The entire kibbutz is enveloped in the heady smell when this happens.

We plant tomatoes -- 15 varieties of them -- the likes of Yellow Pear, Beefsteak, Cherry Chadwick, Purple de Milpa, Rome, Merimond, Brandy Wine, Burbank, and Cherokee Purple. Basil, marigolds, parsley, and calendula are interplanted. Beans are next. Along with the regular bush and pole bean varieties are Golden Tempari, Jacobs Cattle, Lubia, Anasazi, Lizard. I have never heard of the last one. Seeds come as donations from Genesis (an Israeli organic seed company), from the hands of local seed collectors, and in the backpacks of the volunteers.

Although the rectangles and straight lines seem absolutely conventional, it is all planned as an interdependent system. Thick flowering bushes of sage, rosemary, lavender, mints, and artemisia act as boundaries every few rows. Nutritious weeds such as chubeza (mallow) hug the edges and grow between the crops. During the season, they act as an excellent groundcover, as well as an addition to soups and salads. After the crop harvest, the weeds are tilled into the ground as green manure. "Last year it came out all jungle-like. The pest problem was nonexistent but some of the crops never fully developed," Tesa remembers. The system in the garden is not a system at all. Some basics are followed, but every season brings new innovations.

"If it doesn’t work we can always
return to our old pasture fields
and replant this one."

Home agriculture

Tesa refers to what is happening in Neot Smadar as home agriculture. They are feeding themselves, planting for the satisfaction of their own personal tastes. The community is the first priority. Whatever is extra goes to the market. They move at their own pace, without pressure. "This is our own backyard we are playing in." Communal participation leads to communal knowledge. And new people bring new energy, new creativity to each project. The lack of attachment to an expected end-result makes the work freeing, more centered on observation and experimentation than speed or ego.

Each day brings new insight. The goat shepherds are rolling seed pellets in preparation for a new pasture field, inspired by Masanobu Fukuoka's idea in his classic book One Straw Revolution. Seeds of grains, greens, and legumes are mixed with clay and compost. Gardens have already been planted in this manner. Randomness is the only expectation. And everything comes up in its own time.

Even more courageous, Uval plans on watering strictly during the winter months. He is not sure at all if the forage will survive a desert summer without watering. "If it doesn’t work we can always return to our old pasture fields and replant this one."

Carp and lotus in the desert

-Sunken gardens irrigated by the lake

The entire irrigation system is absurd in its brilliance. To save on pumping expenses, the water company agreed to help them create a lake. So Neot Smadar has its own 50,000 cubic meter watering hole, along with an island and a few canoes. Water is pumped to a pool sitting on a hilltop overlooking Neot Smadar and, through gravity, irrigates the orchards and sunken gardens. "Water is lost to evaporation but so much is gained." Reeds, water lilies, lotuses purify the water. Carp feed on algae and plankton. "They taste like dirty water but we'll figure it out." Vegetable and herb gardens line the shore. Another hallucination.

Just like any other kibbutz, Neot Smadar is suffering from debt. Outside money is coming in. There is an on-site processing center where homemade jams, honeys, juices, oils, and wines are prepared for health-food stores around the country. There is also their pundak, at an intersection near the kibbutz, selling everything homemade and home-grown. But their intentions are not dedicated to the market or its economy. "When you live only with what you have there is no conflict." Their needs are simple. The general consensus does not include ownership of wealth or goods beyond any necessity. "If I need a new pair of shoes, I ask the kibbutz. And they say yes. Or they say no. Either way, you won't see anyone here walking around without a pair of shoes on their feet." Except of course for the plenty that choose to go barefoot.

It is this sort of faith that makes the community so solid. It is argued that a permanent agriculture, not permaculture per se but a general sound and healthy cultivation, will only survive by the efforts of a permanent community. This is not a permanent community they tell me. Many of the people living here are transients, volunteers from around the world. The word has reached them through random exchanges on the subways of New York City, on the beaches of the Sinai Peninsula, over a beer in Berlin, but it comes in a blunt and clear manner. So they come, some for a few weeks time, others for years.

Ideals survives transience

The flow of new faces is constant. What is permanent is the ideal behind it all. This will never change. It belongs to the community, an entity greater than any of the individuals that make it up. There is a selfless dedication and belief on their part that seems almost religious, fueling a momentum which allows continuous creation to unfold every day. Some components are thriving, others have failed. But it all balances out in the abundance of their own plates, in the enjoyment of their own stomachs.

I will remember always the days spent in their date plantation. By six in the morning, eight or nine of us are packed into a minivan heading down into the valley. We arrive to towering palms, all in straight rows making a perfect grid formation. The heady aroma of fresh compost, hugging the base of every tree, saturates the air. This is their main commercial crop. Harvest is coming soon; the fruits need to be thinned.

We begin to climb. Old branches are cut as the tree grows, becoming the trunk over time. They are our footholds as we make our way up. The ladder only goes so far; some of these are 30 feet high. Adi is scared of ladders; she climbs from the ground up without one. Toby jets from tree to tree, attacking each one gracefully. By the end of the day his hands are swollen with the poison of the thorns.

I get comfortable in the branches; set properly I feel as if I'm in an armchair. I break open the deep brown husks, and a sweet aroma rushes out. The fruits are crowded together, little gems of yellowish green. Water beads drip down their heads. I go from husk to husk. Separate them, cut them back, tie them up and move on.

"We hang our hammocks between the trees, the full moon rises red. The night is warm and the breeze is gentle."
-- Toby

A gong, an oasis and cheese in a tube

I forget myself in the moment, as the winds swell up, making the tree bend and arch like as if was rubber. Held in the branches, my movements are theirs. I move slowly, too absorbed in the smells and weightless sensations. The desert spreads out below me. Human monkey cries fill the air. There is a gong in the distance. Tea break. I scramble down the tree. There is an oasis awaiting me. The tea is heated by a campfire. We sit on cushions, thoughts dissolve with sugar. I entertain questions about America's food standards -- cheese in a tube?

A penguin-sized owl squirts water from his ceramic beak into a pool. We jump in, becoming one with the trees' irrigation system. Flocks of birds, making their way from Africa to Europe descend on the greenery; the bold share the waters with us. "The harvest season is the best,” Toby says. “Two always sleep out here to protect the fruits. We hang our hammocks between the trees, the full moon rises red. The night is warm and the breeze is gentle." He dreams of August.

7 p.m. is dinner. I have begun to appreciate the dining hall as a sanctuary. The food served is the produce of our own labor. The meals are communal but the custom is silence. All day we are working with one another, so eating is dedicated to privacy. In the western world, meal times are generally forced social interactions, whether in the office, restaurant, and home. Friends and lovers and even strangers unite at the table. You talk and listen, anything but focus on the enjoyments of the food or give thanks to the life forces that went into its creation. A respect for the process of eating can only come from a respect for the foods, though. So while the silence may have been awkward anywhere else, it is comforting here.

After the meal, I fill my glass with garden tea herbs and lounge with the others outside. We talk about music and home memories, travels, enjoyments of the day. The moon is full and the desert glows blue. Children are running all round me, their laughter vibrates in the air. Fathers and mothers ride their bicycles, with children sharing the seat. I return to myself, separate and aware, in awe of the reminder. This is not a farm nor a school but a home, a home for many loving, sharing happy families, a home that they have managed to create for themselves, through themselves.

I wade back again, accepting their invitation to join for as long as I am around.