Arava tour reveals Israel’s pioneering work in desert agriculture

Click photo to download. Caption: Strawberries are planted in a cool greenhouse and hung on plastic trellises at the Arava R&D Center. Credit: Barry A. Kaplan.

By Sybil Kaplan/JNS.org

Arava, literally meaning “desolate” and “dry area” in Hebrew, on the map is a section of the Jordan Rift Valley, running in a north-south orientation between the southern end of the Sea of Galilee down to the Dead Sea and continuing further south, where it ends at Eilat and the Gulf of Aqaba. It includes most of the border between Israel to the west and Jordan to the east.

The Arava region—15 miles south of the Dead Sea, past the hotels, and 83 miles north of Eilat—is home to the annual agricultural expo called “Desertech,” the largest agricultural expo in Israel, which recently took place for the 23rd year. In the actual exhibition area of Desertech are more than 150 agriculture-related exhibitors. A food court, arts and crafts market, and stage with musical performers are all nearby.

There are seven communities in the Arava, five based on agriculture and two on tourism, with 800 families among them. The Arava Agricultural Research and Development Center and the Arava Scientific Research and Development Center hold Desertech near Moshav Hatzeva. (A moshav is a cooperative agricultural community of individual farms.)

In the Arava, 600 local farmers are involved in cultivating 10,000 acres of desert land. They produce 150,000 tons of vegetables per year, primarily tomatoes and peppers but also cherry tomatoes, eggplants, and mangoes. Remarkably, 60 percent of fresh vegetables exported from Israel annually come from the Arava. The following are highlights from a tour of the region:

Arava Agricultural Research and Development Center 

Click photo to download. Caption: Flowers are grown at a greenhouse at the Arava R&D Center. Credit: Barry A. Kaplan.

Leading a tour at the Arava Agricultural Research and Development Center (Arava R&D Center) is Maayan Kitroin, who is in charge of flower research. 

“The Arava is a desert climate—hot, long summers, short, dry winters, with the average rainfall 30 millimeters (1.18 inches) a year,” she says. “With essentially no water, as well as poor soil which is a bit salty, water is found by drilling underground.” 

The R&D center supports the Arava’s farmers in their crop-growing activities, and also looks for new crops to bring to the region. In one net house (like a greenhouse, but covered with a net) at the center are vegetables. A greenhouse nearby has flowers for export. Kitroin notes Trachelium, which she calls “long-day flowers, enjoyed mainly in the British market.” Lights are used to extend the growing time for the flowers each day. 

Strawberries in the desert? The Arava R&D center pulls it off. Strawberries are planted in a cool greenhouse and hung on plastic trellises. They are grown for the local market. 

The R&D center not only investigates vegetables and flowers, but also orchards, organic agriculture, fish, plant protection, herbs, and quality control. 

For a reservation to tour the R&D center, email visit@arava.co.il or call 972-53-866-6114.

Arava Scientific Research and Development Center

Dr. Rivka Ophir and her assistant at the Arava Scientific Research and Development Center have a research room with 250 desert plants originating from Eilat to the Dead Sea. Since many plants are the basis for drugs, Dr. Ophir is using the extracts and compounds from these plants on animal models to determine their therapeutic application for human diseases.

“Desert plants produce something useful for humans because they survive in harsh conditions,” says Ophir. 

Using a zebra fish, she is attempting to study potential value for Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and the center is also “working with cancer cells to see which plants are good [in the fight] against cancer,” she says. The center is also using a worm to research brain diseases such as Parkinson’s, and surveying the Arava plant library for possible breast cancer drugs. 

A coral-growing farmer

Seven miles south of the Arava R&D Center is the community of Ein Yahav, where Assaf Shaham began growing corals in 2008 after a career doing lighting design for architects and the stage.

“Six years ago, I saw a lot of water is not used because it is too salty, and in 2010 there was an agreement that the removal of corals from the ocean was stopped,” Shaham says.

Click photo to download. Caption: Corals grown by Assaf Shaham in the Arava community of Ein Yahav. The CoreBone company's technology gives the corals a diet to make them grow bone faster, to produce a bone substitute that can be used in orthopedic and dental procedures. Credit: Barry A. Kaplan.

Shaham realized that corals had a biomedical use for bone structures. He began to grow them in large rooms salt-water-filled tanks, replicating the conditions of the ocean. Shaham says he “may be the only person growing coral in the world.” 

Ohad Schwartz—founder and CEO of CoreBone, a company that works with the corals grown by Shaham—says, “We make a patent to give corals a diet to make them grow bone faster.” CoreBone’s patented technology is a process that embeds bioactive materials into the skeletons of corals during the growth process, to produce a bone substitute that can be used in orthopedic and dental procedures.

“We grow [coral bones] at least 10 times faster than nature,” Schwartz says.

With human or animal bones, “one risks disease or rejection and synthetics are not strong enough,” explains Schwartz. The global market for orthopedic and dental bone-graft substitutes is growing rapidly due to the demands, particularly by the aging population.

CoreBone is waiting approval of the regulatory process in Europe in the next half year, and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval by the end of 2014, to enter the dental and orthopedic markets with specifically grown corals. The Israeli government and the Israeli Office of the Chief Scientist are helping the project financially. 

‘Blueprint Negev’

Since the central Arava is not connected to Israel’s national water system, it can only get its water supply through local drillings and reservoirs built by the Jewish National Fund (JNF). Recently, the JNF began its “Blueprint Negev” campaign to develop the Negev and to encourage people to relocate there. Specifically for the Arava, in conjunction with the Central Arava Regional Council and the Israeli government, JNF is building a medical center for health services and emergency care. It will replace the 40-year-old clinic there. 

Thousands of date palms 

Click photo to download. Caption: Date palms in the Arava. Credit: Barry A. Kaplan.

Standing at dusk in a date plantation, surrounded by thousands of date palms that are 18 meters (59 feet) high, is an awesome experience.

Itay Asael of Moshav Tzofar was our guide. He explains that the farmers in the five agricultural-based Arava communities manage the date plantations together, some growing since the 1970s. The trees produce one to one-and-a-half tons per acre, primarily of the plump and tender medjool variety. 

Asael tells us, “Date palms are both female and male. The primary purpose of male date palms is as pollinators, and one male is enough to pollinate 100 females.”

These trees yield approximately 150 kilos (330 pounds) per tree, per year. Asael says these dates “are exported to Europe and the U.S., but we are now reaching into markets in China and India.”

Pick your own organic veggies

A fun, final stop in the Arava is the Meloh Ha’tenne greenhouse, specifically for tourists. For a nominal amount, you can pick your own tomatoes and peppers. 

To make a reservation, call 972-52-291-3379 or 972-52-366-6606. 

As a tour of the Arava reveals, Israel is truly a global leader and pioneer in desert agriculture.  

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Posted on January 15, 2014 and filed under Special Sections, Travel.