Focus on Issues Longhorns, Israelis and JNF

Surely, there is no mention in any liturgy of Laredo, Texas, as a “land of milk and honey.” Yet, with the sure vision and unflinching approach of the agriculture commissioner of the Lone Star State, a troubled and poor spot is about to bloom on the Rio Grande, with Israeli know-how and the Jewish National Fund partners with Texas in an unusual but highly practical experiment.

Jim Hightower, the Texas Commissioner of Agriculture, was at JNF headquarters in New York last week to announce the novel project. Charlotte Jacobson, treasurer and past president of JNF, and Dr. Samuel Cohen, JNF executive vice president, presented the softspoken Texan with a comprehensive plan for developing a “Blueprint Farm of the Future” at Laredo using Israeli farm technology.

JNF financed $50, 000 for a feasibility study by the Texas-Israel Exchange (TIE), Hightower’s maverick creation of mutually beneficial agriculture projects that include crop production, water conservation, cooperative marketing, integrated pest management and solar energy generation. The Laredo project is the first of the TIE program. A 15-member steering committee of public officials and local business and agricultural leaders from south Texas is working with TIE on the project.

“Because of the financial support of the Jewish National Fund, the technical expertise of an Israeli evaluation team, and the pioneering spirit of the people of Laredo, our ‘Blueprint Farm’ is ready to advance from the talking stages into the plowing and planting stages,” Hightower said.

DETERMINED TO MAKE PROJECT WORK

Since the demise of Texas oil riches and because of the painful difficulties that American farmers are facing — a story in itself — the small Texas farmer, and the state in general, have plummeted in productivity. But Texas sees these problems as a challenge to even more productivity. Hightower, a man of great conscience and an iron will, is determined to make a project work. He has devoted a large chunk of his time to bringing together the sharpest minds and greatest expertise among Israelis and Texans.

Hightower is a mover and a shaker, but he is also modest, and he gives credit to others as it is due, and immediately. He said he owes his idea of bringing together Texas and Israel for the novel exchange to Sara Ehrman, a Jewish Texan once a member of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), active in Texas Jewish and Democratic activities, and TIE’s first Texas coordinator. (Hightower announced last week that Nancy Epstein now serves in that position.)

Ehrman, he said, approached him back in 1982 — as soon as he was elected commissioner to look into the possibilities of such a Texas Israel cooperative venture. On the face of it, the partnership might look a trifle lopsided, but the fact is that Texas and Israel lie on the same latitude, and have similar problems with aridityand the need for advanced irrigation techniques and crop rotation.

An interesting footnote: drip irrigation, always spoken of with Israel in mind, was, said Hightower, invented at Texas A and M University.

THE EVOLUTION OF AN IDEA

Hightower was invited to Israel but, he said, he “wanted to do more than just take a tour. I wanted it to be a useful trip.” He went to Israel “to see people who did something innovative,” he told JTA in a long interview at the JNF offices.

About 200-300 leaders of the Texas Jewish community were interested in the idea, and AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith also got involved in the venture; ADL out of missions to Israel by its Texas regional members who came back “wanting to do something.”

In 1984 in Israel, Hightower was advised by several people in government to talk to Avraham Katz-Oz, then a Labor Member of Knesset, a kibbutznik personally involved in agriculture and since named Deputy Minister of Agriculture. Hightower said there was “no need to discuss grandiose schemes. It was only necessary to make one thing work.” A team of Texans, comprising farmers, business people and government figures, was invited to Israel. After talking to Katz-Oz about an agricultural exchange, “They were really bowled over,” Hightower said. Katz-Oz himself came to Texas in the spring of 1985. “This raised a lot of eyebrows in Texas and Jerusalem,” Hightower laughed. “The Foreign Ministry asked, ‘What’s going on?’”

NO SMALL POTATOES

It wasn’t just small potatoes. Together, the Texans and the Israelis had come up with the idea to rotate crops of December tomatoes; asparagus, melons, bell peppers, sweet basil, dill and other fresh herbs; and cut flowers such as irises and gladiolus.

Hightower and Katz-Oz then signed a memorandum of agreement in Austin, Texas, for Texas-Israel agricultural cooperation, with each man becoming a cochairman of TIE. In fact, Katz-Oz admitted that Israel could learn from Texas farmers, citing Texas’s ability to grower sweeter citrus fruits.

Hightower returned to Israel in November 1986, having been reelected to his post, with specific proposals and a meeting with the Israel contingent of TIE. In Texas, John Vlcek, assistant commissioner for marketing and agricultural development, toured Texas with Ehrman, visiting Rotary Clubs and other places where farmers gathered to discuss the planned venture.

The dean of Laredo Community College, Jacinto Juarez, offered 100 acres of the college’s land for farming. A local farmer and businessman, Randolph Slaughter, offered additional acreage, already irrigated, for the project. In all, the project is making use of 47 acres of the land offered.

At this point, Hightower approached JNF in Texas, which agreed to commit a small portion of the money it raised to go to the project. In Israel, Tahal Consulting Engineers Ltd., a government-owned company, was commissioned to assess the land in Laredo.

This past March, a team of three Israeli agriculture experts spent a month making a detailed analysis of the farmsite’s soil characteristics, irrigation capabilities and climate. The team, composed of Dr. David Ityiel, agricultural planner, Dr. David Melamed, irrigation engineer; and Dr. Binyamin Gamliel, crops specialist, indicated that crop production could begin this coming fall.

SOME FAVORABLE STATISTICS

The total cost of developing the Blueprint Farm — which will include greenhouses, protective nets and a drip irrigation system — was calculated by the Israelis at approximately $480,000. TIE has already received a grant of $125,000 from the Meadows Foundation of Dallas to hire an Israeli farm manager, prepare the land, buy seed and equipment and develop market surveys for the farm.

The Israeli team estimated costs and yields on a 25-year basis, and figures that the internal rate of return would be about 20 percent, “with all capital investment recovered within nine to ten years.”

With these favorable statistics in mind, TIE is now seeking additional funds to develop the project from the Hoblitzelle Foundation of Dallas, the Ford Foundation and the Jewish Fund for Justice.

And Hightower’s maverick concept has not stood still with Israel. Texas now has an exchange agreement with Egypt, sending 12,000 dairy cows to Egypt, as well as a crop exchange with Mexico, and other states have since established individual ties with Israel, following the lead of Texas.

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