Making deserts livable

Making deserts livable

'We could feed the world'

Students at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev get a first-hand look at the harshness of the desert – and the challenges it poses. Courtesy BGU

Special to The Jewish Standard

Israel is famously known as a land of milk and honey, but it is hardly one that is flowing with water. For Israeli scientists today, maximizing water use is a key focus for research and innovation.

It may also be key to avoiding the regional war everyone says must happen some day – a war for water.

For the scientists, though, the main goal is finding ways to grow plentiful amounts of food in arid lands.

In the midst of harsh desert conditions in the Negev and the Arava, Israel’s long, eastern valley, Israeli researchers and farmers have created a flourishing network of high-tech agriculture. Tomatoes, peppers, olives, cheeses, and grapes blossom from arid land despite the fact that annual rainfall totals are measured in mere inches and the proximity to the Dead Sea produces groundwater that is highly saline.

Naftali Lazarovitch, a specialist in irrigation at the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), does much of his experimentation at the Zohar Research Station near the Dead Sea, where greenhouses that resemble white plastic caterpillars serve as indoor fields as well as laboratories. Before Lazarovitch explains the technology that allows crops to grow with saline irrigation water, he offers visitors the fruit of his research – literally: a gorgeous array of orange, purple, yellow, and red bell peppers packed with crispness, crunch, and flavor. The peppers, which are exported to global markets, grow in small containers of perlite, a soil-less culture made of a mixture of stones, coconut powder, and crushed building material.

The Israeli-pioneered method of subsurface drip irrigation – which allows water to trickle slowly to the roots of plants – nourishes fat red tomatoes planted in soil, agricultural guinea pigs of sorts for experiments on water use, evaporation, irrigation, and salinity levels. Melons and sweet basil grow in nethouses.

The main idea, Lazarovitch explains, “is how to make crops with less drops.”

The area is disconnected from the main water supply, and desalinated water is available only by pipe when municipalities and factories have an overage, so farmers have learned to use the saline water below the soil. Sometimes, the unforgiving conditions that Negev scientists tend to call “stress” create good things in plants: more antioxidants, better color. The yield, however, is reduced.

On the road south from Beersheva, a grove of 250 olive trees newly planted at the experimental Wadi Mashash Farm has sprouted almost miraculously in seemingly parched sand. Pedro Berliner, director of the Blaustein Institute, explains that modern agroforestry is reclaiming Nabatean methods of water harvesting, a cheap, robust, and efficient system. The amount of rainfall in the area is only four inches, he says, but there are a few “high intensity events.” Instead of being absorbed immediately into the ground, the heavy rains flow to low-lying areas and pool in previously prepared plots surrounded by dikes. The soil slowly absorbs and stores the water so crops can grow throughout the summer.

Using the same technology, an adjacent acacia forest provides fodder for animals as well as firewood; corn will be planted in between the trees. The techniques developed at Wadi Mashash are helping third-world countries combat desertification, the further degradation of arid lands.

Three dozen ranches in the Negev specialize in olives, goat cheese, and fish, and a dozen different vineyards produce anywhere from 1,000 to 150,000 bottles a year. In the Negev Highlands near Sde Boker, the Kornmehl Cheese Farm represents one of many collaborations between farmers and scientists centering on how to manage water in the desert. Micheal Travis is the Wisconsin-born scientist who moved to Israel in 2005 to get his Ph.D from BGU, specializing in wastewater reuse. Amazingly, 80 percent of water in Israel is reused; the percentage in the United States is tiny.

Eighth-generation Jerusalemite Anat Kornmehl and her Argentinian-born husband Danny are the farmers and cheesemakers who moved to the Negev highlands in 1997 and want to grow grass for their 100 Nubian goats. Both Kornmehls are graduates of the faculty of agricultural science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. They believe that the health of the goats is of utmost importance, and the quality of the milk – 4,000 gallons a year, antibiotic and hormone-free – comes from the goats’ living conditions and good food.

The Kornmehls’ land faces remnants of terraces belonging to an ancient farm from the Middle Bronze period (1000-2000 BCE). Their small restaurant, opened four years ago, serves such specialties as goat-cheese pizza, phyllo stuffed with cheese, camembert on potato slices in a garlic yogurt sauce, and Edna cheese sticks served in sweet wine apple sauce.

“We are farmers, but we cannot disconnect from tourism,” says Anat. When tourists cannot be accommodated in the restaurant, she sends them to another nearby farm, explaining, “We are all colleagues. There’s no competition.”

At Kish Farm, Daniel Kish, a sculptor, has turned his artistry to the creation of boutique organic wines. BGU researcher Aaron Fait works with Kish to test the impact of intense light, temperature, and mild drought conditions on the grapes, and to determine how those variables affect the quality of the wine and the presence of anti-inflammatory compounds like Resveratrol. Kish grows and blends cabernet, petit verdot, shiraz, zinfandel, and merlot grapes, and has named his wines for the four local riverbeds: Paran, Rimon, Neqorot, and Ardon.

The low humidity prevents fungi and bacteria, so pesticides are unnecessary. Birds are the biggest nuisance. “If you are the only wet and colorful thing in a desert, you will be eaten!” says Fait.

In fact, the combination of technology and agriculture has created quite a lot to eat in the desert. Many of the artisanal foods are served at the luxurious new Beresheet Hotel, built on high cliffs that look down into the panorama of Makhtesh Ramon, often called Israel’s Grand Canyon. The pan-Mediterranean restaurant purchases ingredients from local kibbutzim, farms, and wineries. The hotel has to satisfy the appetites of only its hungry guests, but multiplied exponentially, the scientific and agricultural advances in the Negev have vast potential. As Lazarovitch says, “If we figure out how to solve the combined stresses of drought and salinity, we could feed the world.”

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