How Israeli Technology Transformed an Inhospitable Strip of Desert into an Agricultural Powerhouse

July 21, 2022 | Abigail Klein Leichman
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Despite early Zionists’ focus on creating farming communities, the Jewish state’s economy is now more closely tied to software than to produce. But the old slogan of “making the desert bloom” remains a reality—and part of the story of Israeli technological innovation. Abigail Klein Leichman reports from an agronomic institute in the southeastern part of the country:

Maayan Kitron, coordinator of flower and herb research at Arava R&D, also provided visiting reporters with tastes of cherry tomatoes, peppers, and strawberries raised in this strip of the Negev desert stretching down Israel’s eastern border from the Dead Sea to Eilat. This is a place of long, punishing summers—hardly hospitable conditions for agriculture.

“The average summer day is 40-plus degrees” Celsisus, or 104 Fahrenheit, “and at night the temperature drops only 10 degrees” [50 Farhenheit], says Kitron, who also has a family farm in the central Arava. Nevertheless, the R&D center’s greenhouses grow Gulliver’s spinach (a spinach-like leafy green that thrives in hot climates and keeps in the fridge for a month), Momordica (a bitter melon containing potential nutraceutical substances including a “natural insulin”), cherry tomatoes, eggplants, melons, cucumbers, and exotic crops like kiwano (horned African melon).

Kitron says the average annual rainfall in the Arava Valley is 50 millimeters (2 inches). This year, less than 20 millimeters fell. “Our water comes from about 60 wells we’ve drilled, all connected to one control system in Eilat,” she says, adding that now they’re also getting some water piped from a desalination plant in Ashkelon.

The saline well water must be treated, but the upside is that irrigating with saline water results in sweeter produce. (Kitron explains that’s because of osmosis: the salt concentration of the water causes the plants’ roots to release more sugars.) . . . Drip irrigation, an Israeli innovation, makes this workable. But the heat and the not-particularly-fertile soil are also challenging.

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