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Israel’s Desert Is Growing Gourmet Food. Pay Attention.

negev yoskowitz

When I first visited the Negev Desert in southern Israel as a child, I expected to see what I had imagined a desert should look like from the movies: sand dunes and endless vistas of lifeless terrain. However, with its acacia trees and ground shrubbery, the Negev was an ecologically dynamic place where the sage brush and wild broom flowers hearkened back to a rich biblical past.

As an adult, when I returned to the Negev to scout out innovative farmers and gourmet food producers, I saw the desert — and those who have chosen to cultivate it — as the future of food in Israel.

Organic desert olive oil

I was part of a unique venture to connect artisan Negev food producers with the American market, and to support the farms that were working with the desert, not against it. My guide was the first producer I met, Doron Akiva, a Yemenite olive grower and organic olive oil producer.

Akiva lives in a 15-family collective on the southwestern border where Israel meets Egypt’s Sinai Desert. Like a lot of the Negev’s entrepreneurial farmers and food producers, Akiva has chosen to live and work in the Negev because the landscape, flora and fauna inspire him. He also appreciates the challenges of a harsh climate.

Innovation born of necessity

It is precisely because of the arid desert environment — the Negev only receives 60-80 mm (roughly 2½ to 3 inches) of rainfall per year — that the Negev has become home to so much innovation and agricultural advancement. Growers and researchers there have been forced to make do with little water and scant resources.

For some crops, the harsh conditions seem to be beneficial. Certain varieties of desert olives — namely the Barnea — yield more oil per fruit and produce more vitamin E in the desert climate where the incessant sunlight and sweltering summers force the trees to call upon more of the soil’s nutrients.

Akiva has chosen to go organic because he sees no need to spray his trees when the very pest that eats olives, the olive fly, cannot survive the harsh heat.

Israeli Argan Oil

Other growers in the region, including Orly and Yoni Sharir, have made it their mission to grow desert-appropriate plants. Working with researcher Elaine Soloway of the Arava Institute, a premiere environmental and research center in the Middle East, the Sharirs have begun to grow argan trees, whose fruit contains the seeds that produce the increasingly popular – and expensive – argan oil, used in cooking and cosmetics. The couple now boasts an experimental small orchard in their backyard, and a wadi (dry river bed) along which they raise camels and sponsor an eco-lodge for tourists.

Harnessing an underground aquifer

Perhaps the most compelling agricultural development in the Negev that I saw on my food-tasting mission is one that strikes me as critical to the future of the entire Middle East: the use of brackish water — a naturally salty water with less saline than seawater — for irrigation. Negev farmers are growing olives, dates, pomegranates, flowers and even cherry tomatoes and wine grapes using the non-potable water from an underground aquifer three times the size of the Sea of Galilee, the largest freshwater lake in Israel. Experts estimate that this aquifer can supply water for agriculture in Israel’s desert for the next 100 to 200 years.

Akiva grows his olives on the aquifer’s water, and he and other growers have implemented a system wherein salty water is dripped ever so slowly around the root systems of a tree without damage to the crops or the trees.

Kibbutz Neot Smadar, a collective in the Arava desert practicing permaculture, has taken saltwater irrigation a step further than many of its neighbors. It utilizes the residual saltwater brine from the nearby desalination plant that converts seawater to fresh water — a highly concentrated saline solution — to irrigate its alfalfa fields along the side of the highway (land that is otherwise useless). The kibbutz feeds its goats the alfalfa and uses the milk to craft supreme and creamy goat cheeses.

Global implications

That contemporary gourmet food production and sustainable agriculture are thriving in the desert can be somewhat surprising, especially for those who picture Death Valley when they think of a desert. But given the ecological challenges facing the Middle East and much of the world today, more farmers from around the world should be taking a cue from the Negev farmers and looking for innovative ways to produce crops in what may seem like unfavorable conditions. If saltwater can be used for irrigation, imagine the possibilities for lands once thought unusable.

It is no surprise that the very answers to some of our most grave challenges — namely, how to produce high quality food with little to no resources — should come from the very place that was once a wild wasteland, the weigh station on the way to the land of Canaan where, arguably, the Israelites first became a nation.

While the Negev desert has already had a tremendous influence on world religion and human history, now there are compelling reasons for the world to follow in the Negev’s innovate footsteps yet again.

Jeffrey Yoskowitz is the senior advisor for Negev Nectars, a company he helped launch in 2009 to bring gourmet and sustainably produced food from Israel’s Negev desert to the American marketplace. He is also a freelance food and culture writer who has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic and The Forward, and is the editor of Visit Negev Nectars for more information about the growers mentioned and the products available.

Photo: Jeffrey Yoskowitz. Credit: Sophie Barbasch

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Enter to win foods from the Negev from Negev Nectars founder Marvin Israelow.