Sweet cherry tomatoes, luscious wine grapes, and tasty olives flourish in the Negev, the desert region that accounts for nearly two-thirds of Israel’s land. Even fish—barramundi and bass—thrive there.
The small amount of rain (2 to 4 inches a year) and the desert soil, much of it sandy, would hardly seem conducive to farming. Even the discovery of a huge aquifer under the Negev, part of a regional aquifer under the Sinai Desert, would not seem to be much help, because its water is brackish (saltier than fresh water but less salty than seawater).
But Israeli scientists have discovered ways of using both the Negev soil and the brackish water to grow crops that are even better than those grown in seemingly more favorable conditions.
True, seeds and young plants need fresh water, but then brackish water can be introduced gradually.
“The secret is the [precise] mix of fresh and brackish water,” said Raz Arbel, tourism manager of the Ramat-Negev Regional Council, who recently showed journalists the area’s research institute and local farms.
Once scientists at the Ramat-Negev AgroResearch Center developed the appropriate mix of fresh and brackish water, they created a computer program that would provide it automatically.
Cherry tomatoes pollinated by bees account for 90 percent of the crops in the area. Rooted in sand in above-ground Styrofoam boxes, they yield about 100 tons per acre (which seems to be more than five times the average yield of tomatoes in the US). They fetch about $4 a pound in European markets.
In a seeming paradox, the “torture” of being irrigated with brackish water gives the tomatoes a longer shelf life and makes them three times as sweet as tomatoes grown on fresh water. The trick now is to get all the tomatoes in a cluster to ripen at the same time, Arbel said. One solution is to grow green tomatoes.
Chives, too, thrive on brackish water, and when it is used at its natural temperature (104° F), their flavor is more pronounced.
Not all fruits and vegetables have succeeded on brackish water. Sweet potatoes and watermelons, for example, were indeed sweet, but lacked their characteristic color and thus were unattractive to consumers. Several varieties of strawberries have not been successful because they require a large percentage of fresh water, but two varieties look promising, according to Arbel.
It is cheaper to desalinate brackish water for irrigation than to bring fresh water from the Sea of Galilee in the north, but it creates the problem of what to do with the extracted salt. Scientists are working on this, too. So far they have discovered that Salicoma, a tiny asparagus, thrives on the added salt, as does Med. Saltbush, whose leaves are a tasty addition to salads. Both are in demand in the European market.
The research center was founded by Yoel DeMalach, an immigrant from Italy, who devoted 50 years to developing plants that could grow on brackish water in Negev soils. Now the farming methods are being taught to students from China, Vietnam, and Myanmar, who work in the Ramat-Negev farms.
The center offers daily guided tours for groups and individuals, and local farms provide a variety of accommodations and attractions, including wine-tasting.
Photo and text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the photo or text may be used without written permission of the author.