In his last public statement, the late Shimon Peres encouraged Israelis to purchase “blue and white,” or Israeli-made products. Peres asked, “Can you imagine a meal without an Israeli salad; can you imagine setting the table without Israeli fruits?”
Peres, who started each day with an Israeli salad, recognized how difficult making a living has become for many Israeli farmers. The wholesale prices for most fruits and vegetables are inadequate. The price for recycled water for irrigation has gone way up, and the weather in late 2016 made the situation worse. The fall rains took longer than usual to start. Before the rain came, some farmers lost orchards in the large fires fed by the dry conditions and high winds.
In November, the government decided to allow imports of Gazan tomatoes, glutting the wholesale market. One farmer posted a tirade on Facebook and showed his stacks of unsold tomatoes. He wanted to know how the government justified the move when he and others had bumper crops for sale at a reasonable price.
A November 14th Jerusalem Post cover story entitled “Israeli Farmers Staring Into the Abyss” described how one farm in northern Israel gave away 500 tons of tomatoes. At the going wholesale price, it was better to let customers into their fields than to pay workers to harvest the crops.
Farmers led by the Farmers’ Federation and other groups have protested at rural intersections and in Jerusalem. Their top demands are sensible policies that only allow imports when Israeli crops are in short supply, reductions in recycled water prices, a permanent end to taxes farmers pay for employing foreign workers and overall increased investment agriculture.
Farming in Israel is never easy, always a roller coaster. Guy Rilov of Makura Farm explains why the current downturn is so critical: “The difference between historic crises in Israeli agriculture and the current crisis is that there are so few farmers left and no future generation. Unless something dramatic is done, we will be left without farmers in the next few years with all the bad implications for the country.”
While housing is much more of a burden, rising food prices are part of the reason the cost of living continues to a major problem in Israel. In August, the Farmers’ Federation released a report arguing that farmers are not the reason for high retail produce prices. While wholesale prices are down on average, the report explained the large supermarkets, controlling ever more of the retail market, have increased prices.
The Jerusalem Post story told of how some Israeli farmers are seeking out retail sales at farmers’ markets and through buyer’s clubs. Israelis are enjoying access to the fresher, less expensive produce, but it is unclear if retail sales will ever support as many farmers as high-volume sales at sufficient wholesale prices.
With fresh fruits and vegetables unprofitable, Israeli farmers are likely to grow more olives, dates and wine grapes, all profitable crops that also require less water than vegetables. Farmers will alter the crops they grow and become even more productive. Still, if a significant number of farms are to continue, Israelis, as Shimon Peres exhorted, will need to support them regardless of whether imports are a little cheaper.
By purchasing more Israeli agricultural exports, Americans can play a large role, too. Wine production in Israel has expanded enormously the last couple decades. Good wine stores in the Washington area carry wine from Israeli vineyards, and Israeli Wine Direct imports labels that are often harder to find.
My company, Israeli Harvest, imports olive oil from Makura Farm near Haifa. The organic olive oil is available in the Washington area at The Cookery and Dawson’s Market. We also sell fresh dates from Hadiklaim, the Israeli Date Growers Cooperative through our website, and some area grocery stores occasionally carry Israeli dates as well.
While most Israeli vegetables and fruits are sold within Israel or exported to Europe, kosher grocery stores carry seeds and dried fruit packed by big exporters like Osem and Galil. Oxygen Imports has a large line of jams, salad dressings and date syrups made with Israeli fruit, available at Seven Mile Market in Baltimore.
An article in Haaretz recently revealed some brands of olive oil sold as Israeli often contain only a small portion of Israeli olive oil mixed with oil from other countries. This is sometimes the case with other Israeli products. Make sure you read the package closely to confirm that you are really supporting Israeli agriculture, and that the product is not grown elsewhere and just packed in Israel.
Top photo: Does Israeli agriculture have a future, or are a lot of tractors going to sit in the shed? (Photo taken by Tanya Tolchin in Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu.)