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Focus on Issues Tomatoes in the Negev; Lessons of the Trial Decade

September 26, 1980
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The first six settlements of the Pithat Shalom region, alongside the old-new border with Egypt, are close to completion. Within months they will be ready for their new inhabitants, and the Jewish Notional Fund and Jewish Agency Settlement Department will move on to prepare the forms and homes of the next batch of settlements.

In all, 20 settlements are planned for the Pithat Shalom region (now officially renamed the Besor region), and all of them, to a greater or lesser degree, will be based on the model of Sde Nitzan, the first intensive agricultural settlement established in this port of the country, almost a decode ago.

Since that time, when New Zealander Eddy Peretz finally persuaded the Settlement Deportment and the Ministry of Agriculture of the merit of growing greenhouse tomatoes in the sandy soil of the western Negev, the system spread to some of the settlements of Pithat Rafiah, which are soon to be handed back to Egypt, under the peace treaty.

A lot has been learned, a lot of mistakes have been mode, studied and corrected. The new settlers at Pithot Shalom will be the beneficiaries of 10 years of experimenting. The members of Sde Nitzan feel, not unnaturally, that they were the guinea pigs.


Bruce Alpert, formerly of Columbus, Ohio, chairman of Sde Nitzan’s Council, said: “We have had our problems — we like to think they were birth pang problems.”

Alpert and Sde Nitzan’s secretary, Les Barkin, formerly of Johannesburg, explained to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that Sde Nitzan’s problems have been both economic and social –and have all evolved from the experimental nature of the place. Peretz, the two young men hinted, was a bit of on autocrat when it comes to growing greenhouse tomatoes — and not all Sde Nitzan’s 56 farming families could keep up with his tough demands for quality and disciplined growing.

Partly because of friction with Peretz, and portly because the tomato-growing too is still experimental, some of the moshav families also began growing flowers. They took what seemed to be low interest loans from the Jewish Agency to build additional green and plastic-houses — and in common with to many of Israel’s farmers nowadays — find themselves saddled with inflation linked debts that are hard to keep abreast of.

Income — from tomatoes and/or flowers –has been modest-to-fair. There has not, yet, been the high returns from the European export markets that the Sde Nitzan settlers — all of them young Western immigrant families — had perhaps come to expect.

Alpert and Barkin, both deeply committed to the venture, firmly believe that the big profits are just around the corner — once the growing-harvesting-marketing techniques are refined to yet greater scientific precision. Meanwhile, though, there is little extra cash available for luxuries, and some of the families have been digging into, their savings.


It is to give the Sde Nitzan settlers a greater sense of economic confidence that the Jewish Agency Settlement Department and the Ministry of Agriculture have now agreed — after much badgering, say Alpert and Barkin — to help the moshav plant fruit orchards. The fruit from these orchards will also go for export and, while there is no spectacular profit to be mode here, at least there is the prospect of a steady side-income.

All in all, the two young men stress, Sde Nitzan is a success story — with the big success just up ahead. Over the 10 years, 17 families left — some of them returning to the U.S. and others setting up home in Tel Aviv or in another moshav. In terms of Western aliya statistics, that is a pretty good record.

And the atmosphere around the place, when people are not worrying about tomato prices, is relaxed and easy-going. Above and beyond such economic headaches at investment and interest, there is the huge satisfaction of living in Israel, among like-minded people, and being part of a new project with great promise and potential, say Alpert and Barkin.


The Jewish Agency, constantly monitoring Sde Nitzan’s achievements and difficulties, is seeking to apply the lessons learned to neighboring settlements –and above all to the massive Pithat Shalom complex.

The first lesson, summed up in lay language, is that over-intensification is perhaps too much of a good thing. The greenhouses have certainly proven their value as the basis of one-family moshav-type forms in this part of the country — but settlers seem to need some additional variety.

Hence the planners’ decision to provide, right from the start, fruit orchards in addition to the greenhouses supplied to each family for vegetable and flower-growing.

This departure from the pristine theory of family-based intensive agriculture will pose “ideological” problems for at least some of the new settlements, since it implies the need to employ hired labor, which goes against the beliefs of some settlement movements. In Sde Nitzan the farmers have gotten around this by having volunteers from abroad, wishing to spend some time on an Israeli settlement, help out during the harvest months.


But plainly, there is a need for some diversification. In pure economic theory. an exclusively greenhouse-based moshav is viable and even impressively profit making. But people, men and women, don’t work strictly according to economic theory: they need some relief from the impact of intensive agriculture.

Alpert put it this way: tomato growing occupies only eight months of the year. In the summer season there is nothing to do in the tomato greenhouses –and the farmers need something else to occupy them.

Of course tomato growing in greenhouses is by no means an Israeli specialty. What is unique in the intensive agriculture that Peretz brought to the western Negev area is that it is almost entirely energy-free. The area itself, with its temperate winters, is a natural greenhouse: there is no need to heat the greenhouses. Moreover, the sandy soil is ideal, since it is “well aired.”

The area in which this form of agriculture can be practiced is limited by these two natural considerations: only the land near the coast is suitable. Further inland the night-time frost can kill off the crops within hours. And further inland, too, the sand of the soil becomes more desert-like, its granules smaller and its effect less “ventilating.”

The Besor region, therefore, is ideally suited in every respect. The visitor there can already see greenhouses — each of them a quarter-acre in area — springing up all over. Once Pithat Shalom is completed, a veritable agricultural revolution shall have been achieved.

Technological advances are also being harnessed to help the farmers. This year, export — of both vegetables and flowers — has begun in refrigerated ships rather than exclusively in cargo planes as here to fore. The savings in haol-age is, of course, major — some $200 a ton of tomatoes which sell in Europe for up to $1300 a ton.

And at the Hebrew University, experiments with strains of tomato have evolved a new type which the Sde Nitzan farmers are proposing to try out in the coming year.

Yes, in this too they will be the guinea pigs — and they could face difficulties and even losses. But Alpert and Barkin regard the effort with equanimity. They are proud to be pathfinders, and entirely confident that the years of hard work and experimenting are now providing them and their families with the beginnings of prosperity, and lives of deep satisfaction as farmers in Israel.

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