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Behind the Headlines a Desert That Bloomed

Farmers on kibbutzim in the Arava Rift valley north of Eilat tell visitors this month they have come at the right time. They say the countryside is more colorful than usual following a bumper one inch of rain this winter.

But to the 200 delegates from the Jewish National Fund of America, touring the area during their first-ever national assembly held in Israel, the countryside looked dry and forbidding.

Only a close near-ground level examination disclosed on the soil of dry riverbeds, marked by a line of stunted accacia trees, a carpet of inch-high brilliant desert flowers. And then, as the five-bus convoy rounded a bend on the road and skirted a low hill, a remarkable sight came into view — a field of brilliant green, bordered by lines of tall eucalyptus trees.

These were the fields of Kibbutz Yotvata, established in 1951 and the first of the settlements in the barren Arava, then regarded as a crazy venture in an unfarmable region.

Today Yotvata, 20 miles north of Eilat, and a string of other kibbutzim in the Arava, operates a dairy marketing its products, especially a wide variety of yoghurts, throughout the country as well as growing early-ripening and out-of-season vegetables for sale to Israel and Europe.

COMBINATIONS OF FUNDS, SCIENTIFIC APPROACH

The JNF visitors were thrilled to hear that this success represented the JNF in action– the result of the funds they have been raising in the U.S. for land reclamation and afforestation work.

The desert-become-garden transformation has come about through the combination of funds raised abroad and the scientific approach of Israeli soil and agricultural engineers. Israel’s success in the development of computer-controlled irrigation has become world known and is today used in many arid and semi-arid regions of the globe.

But in this hot and dry area, where rainfall is almost nil, where flash floods turn dry riverbeds into raging torrents for very short periods, with rainwater rushing down from far-away mountains and where a strong and steady burning wind blows from north to south day and night, the usual forms of irrigation are virtually useless, and may even be harmful.

The customary drops from revolving overhead distributors tend to evaporate before they reach the plant, and the moisture on the leaves rots them. Furthermore, the salt in the soil in this highly saline area clogs around the roots if the moisture comes from too high.

‘THE MONSTER’

And so, Israeli scientists have developed what the kibbutznikim call “the monster,” a 200-foot wide contraption of girders looking like the wing structure of a jumbo jet, mounted on a central set of wheels carrying a giant drum with a thick rubber pipe wound on it. From the girders hang a series of thin pipes, dragging on the ground between the furrows.

The central computer receives information from sensors about the air and soil temperature, moisture content, wind strength and direction. The correct amount of water then flows through the main pipe and into the individual small pipes, directly to the root of the plant. This system helps leach out the salt from the immediate root area, forcing it into the ridge between the furrows. It was in such a field, green with fresh onions, that the JNF leaders heard of the scientific progress as they enjoyed the tomatoes, green, red and yellow peppers, and dates grown in similar fields in other parts of the kibbutz.

All the fields are ringed by JNF-planted eucalyptus trees which form wind breakers to modify the fierce winds and reduce the amount of sand and dust which would otherwise smother the vegetation.

PREPARING 17,000 ACRES OF LAND

But JNF work in this southern region of Israel is not confined only to farming. Work is under way to prepare some 17,000 acres of land around the area known as King Solomon’s mines — the site of ancient 3,000-year-old Egyptian and modern Israeli copper mines — as a national park.

Other parks are being prepared throughout Israel, with the JNF assisting in the construction of recreation areas with picnic and rest room facilities.

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