Dead Sea vegetable production

Fifty millimetres of rain per year, summer temperatures of 40 degrees, and highly saline water being pumped from up to 1.5km beneath the earth. This is what the Arava farmers around the Dead Sea are contending with.

Driving through the West Bank in Israel heading South from the Sea of Galilee you will descend approximately 500m below sea level, this is where the Dead Sea lays, which is the lowest lake on the planet. As all life disappears and the landscape begins to resemble a George Lucas Star Wars movie, to my surprise I see several greenhouses that look weathered by the blistering sun and attacked by the swirling desert sand. This was my introduction to the  ‘Arava’ , one of Israel’s largest vegetable production regions.

Greenhouse PNG

I had the privilege of attending the Arava horticulture research facility and was amazed at the level of enthusiasm the farmers had despite farming in these near impossible conditions.

A  snapshot of the Arava:

  • The Arava was settled in  the 1950s
  •  Represents only 6% of Israel’s total landmass (380,000 acres)
  • Home to more than 800 families /  3,300 residents  
  • Home to 550 farms / 90% farmers
  • The region makes up 60% of Israel’s total vegetables exports

Climate and irrigating crops in the desert 

The region is a desert that delivers a long summer from April through to November where most of the greenhouses are battened down and the majority of operations cease production as the 40 degree heat, 5-10% humidity, and little to no rainfall make it impossible to grow vegetable crops. In the winter season the area boosts a much more comfortable environment from 25-30 degree daily temperatures and 5-10 degrees at night. This is the time of year when vegetable crops are cultivated.

Water drillHowever,  water is still a problem as there are no channels, no mains   water systems, and only 50mm of rain a year, so catchment of water through preservation is just not viable.

All the water available for the farms is pumped up from 55 local wells that are up to 1.5km deep – just like the one pictured on the left. To give you an indication, typical bores in Australia are 10-100m deep. The deeper the bore, the more energy required to lift the water from these depths, which imposes a large input cost for water.

To make matters even more challenging, the water dragged up from the aquifers is highly saline and 70% of the water is wasted in the filtration process before a single plant is irrigated.

During our visit our team  grappled with the cost and never did find out a true indication, but later discovered that the wells are owned, operated and invested in by the Israel government and they regulate the price of water. So we have gathered that the cost is potentially subsidised to support the farmers.

Crops and markets

Apart from the water challenges and arid hot climate, the farmers here have one key advantage in their season –  the sun  – when the U.S.A, Europe and UK are in their winter.

The types of agriculture that are undertaken in the Arava is as follows;

  • 29,407 tonnes of vegetables (82%)
  • 5,646  tonnes of Fruit trees (16%)
  • 807 tonnes of cut flowers (2%)

The largest vegetable crop by far here are capsicums which make up 66% of all the vegetables produced in the Arava, followed by tomatoes and melons.

Review and conclusion

This region definitely qualifies for making use of an arid desert and produces large volumes of vegetables, but the key thing that I can’t answer is – at what cost? And would it be viable if water wasn’t subsidised?

In discussions with farmers it was evident that 5-10 years ago farmers in the Arava had a distinct competitive advantage in the US, Europe and UK markets because they had a first mover advantage in supporting these markets with winter production deficits that were occurring. However, with regions such as  Spain, Morocco and Argentina in full production over the past five years it has added great pressure on price as these countries aren’t faced with the same production challenges and also have a lower minimum wage compared to Israel.

It was evident that the community was really concerned about the developing and growing competitive pressure and that was one of the reasons the research facility was created, so that the region can innovate and find a revitalised competitive advantage.

A  key learning for me was the attitude of the Israeli farmers. Their confidence and resilience despite the odds stacked against them was astounding. It’s something I will keep in mind for the rest of my life whenever I think my team and I have challenging conditions we need to overcome.

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