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  • Oz Talmor

What On Earth Can You Grow in the Desert?

When the American writer Mark Twain toured Palestine in 1867, he famously described the land in his book The Innocents Abroad as "a hopeless, dreary, heart-broken land.”

Ravaged by malaria, swampy and rocky lands, and a poor and underdeveloped economy, Israeli settlers had the odds stacked against them right from the get-go.


Jewish settlers draining swamps in the young state of Israel
Jewish settlers draining swamps in the young state of Israel

Zionism (the love and yearning for the land of Israel), excitement, energy, a sense of family and belonging, and the socialist Kibbutz enabled the settlers to channel their energy together into building the bedrock of the country, which was its agriculture.

A hundred years later, Mark Twain wouldn't be able to recognize the land of Israel. Out of rocky soil, swamps and deserts, Israelis managed to create gardens, vineyards and farms with some of the most innovative techniques and technologies in the world.


David River in Israel
David River, Israel

However, the most challenging environment to do anything productive was the Negev.

Israel's first prime minister, Ben Gurion, famously said, "It is in the Negev that the youth will be tested – its pioneer strength, vigor of spirit, and creative and conquering initiative."


Therefore, let's take a look at how Israelis' creativity worked out in the Negev.

JOJOBA OILS

Jojoba oil is the liquid produced in the seed of the Simmondsia chinensis plant, which is native to southern Arizona, southern California, and northwestern Mexico. Being derived from a plant that is slow-growing and difficult to cultivate, jojoba oil is mainly used for small-scale applications, such as pharmaceuticals and cosmetics. The advantage of Jojoba oil is that its chemistry makeup is very similar to human natural oil.


Jojoba fields in the Negev, Israel - Jojoba Israel company
Jojoba fields in the Negev, Israel - Jojoba Israel company


How did Jojoba grow in Israel? Well, in the mid-1960s, scientists at the Practical Research Institute at Ben Gurion University imported the seeds to test various ways to grow them in the Negev under the harsh desert conditions. For over a decade, the scientists tested unique oil features, natural resistance to pests, high harvest potential and an efficient plant structure.


In the 1980s, Kibbutz Hatzerim established a nursery for the mother plants, and jojoba was established as an independent branch in the Negev and for the entire country. Today, Israel produces the highest quality jojoba in the world. This agricultural and agro-technological achievement positions Israel at the forefront of international jojoba growers, with an average harvest of 4,500 kg of seeds per hectare. Israel's jojoba export is set to capture 50% of a $130 million market!

Farmers and scientists from various institutes around Israel collaborate to find new ways to reduce costs by using more salinity in water and other tests to improve yield.


Ben Gurion University in the Negev
Ben Gurion University in the Negev

EXOTIC MUSHROOMS

Researchers at the Ramat HaNegev Desert Agriculture Center have cultivated a unique desert truffle, known as Terfezia Leonis fungus, a known delicacy across the Middle East and North Africa. These desert truffles were especially popular among the ancient Jewish communities from the region, who served them either boiled and salted or in a well-known lamb stew traditionally for Passover Seder.


Exotic mushrooms in the wild desert of the Negev
Exotic mushrooms in the wild desert of the Negev

The natural yield of these truffles is heavily influenced by rain, which in recent times has become harder to predict. Such conditions create an expensive market and scarcity, which leads this rare fungus to cost $120 per pound.

With long time research into the intricacy of the fungus and its host plant, Helianthemum sessiliflorum, Israeli researchers found the fungus requires little water and no fertilizer, making it ideal for domestication.

Today, the Negev hosts multiple farms (indoor and outdoor) for several types of exotic mushrooms. Scientists and farmers continue to push the boundary of what is possible to grow for this food type.


Domesticated exotic mushrooms in the Negev
Domesticated exotic mushrooms in the Negev

WORLD-CLASS WINE

Israel is known for exceptional wine that is grown in the center and north of Israel. Israelis love wine and drink it especially with family during Shabbat dinner.

Israeli vineyards have become highly competitive in the international market, with half of Carmel's annual production of 33 million bottles a year. That's roughly $45 million dollars.


Vineyards in Golan Heights
Vineyards in Golan Heights

Cool climate and rich soils are part of the make-up that make Israeli wine world-class. This is why most vineyards are in the northern part of Israel, but growing wine grapes in the Negev, the dry desert climate, is a whole different story. But is it possible?

While Israel has grown agriculture produce in arid deserts, including exotic mushrooms and oils for cosmetics, vineyards are a different story, as hot climates and sun rays make such wines inferior to colder climate wines.


A group of Israeli viticulturists decided to take on the challenge and set up a vineyard in Mitzpe Ramon - the heart of the Negev. How would they overcome the challenges of the climate? By controlling the microclimate of each individual grapevine.

Vineyards in the Negev with grape netting
Vineyards in the Negev with grape netting

Using nets to shade the grapevines, the farmers were able to preserve and nurture the profile of the berry. The farmers used state-of-the-art metabolic profiling machines to test their hypothesis.


After their success, the team decided to take their idea one step forward, and that was to engineer the plants to grow in a way that their leaves shade their own berries.


CORALS FOR MEDICINAL INDUSTRY

From oceans around the world to the arid Negev Desert of Israel, companies OkCoral and CoreBone are growing corals for medicinal purposes, including bone replacements and dental and orthopedic procedures.


Bone grafts are essentially scaffolds for human bones to grow on in bone replacements, but the corals themselves do not possess all the qualities needed to be bone replacements. The coral farming companies developed bioengineering methods, including a 'coral diet' that corals grow with to achieve those qualities.


OkCoral coral farms in the Negev
OkCoral coral farms in the Negev

The optimal product requires 4 essential qualities that CoreBone was able to achieve:


1) Biocompatibility: It needs to be accepted by the body and not rejected

2) Strength: It needs to be the same as a human bone

3) Enable remodelling: Allowing new bone growth and coral degradation at an equal rate

4) Bioactivity: Enabling the scaffolding to “communicate” with the body to speed up the recovery

Another nice feature of these coral farms is that they are very environmentally friendly. They are mostly solar powered, they use solar tubes, and they are not taken out of the ocean, which is their natural habitat.


OkCoral coral farms in the Negev
OkCoral coral farms in the Negev

AQUACULTURE

Fishing in the desert is possible. Some might say it is even better than anywhere else.


In the Negev's Arava area, 15 fish farms currently operate, growing ornamental fish and freshwater prawns that are exported to the Far East, Europe and the USA. These farms produce millions of ornamental fish per month, making them some of the biggest of their kind in the world.


Commercial fish farms in the Negev
Commercial fish farms in the Negev

These fish grow disease-free as they are far from natural habitats, and the farm is low on costs due to highly developed water recycling (95% of water is recycled within the farm). Some farms developed their own feeding machines that are highly calculated and save more on costs.

Colors company ornamental fishes
Colors company ornamental fishes

The fresh-water prawns grown in these farms are not only exported for food, but they are also deployed as biological agents to combat a disease called Schistosomiasis in Africa, which are tiny snails living in Africa's rivers and lakes. This disease kills 200,000 and infects 2,000,000 Africans, but the prawns are ferocious killers of these snails and are deployed to eat and kill the snails.


Fresh water prawns
Fresh water prawns

How did these farmers do so well despite all odds?

One of the recipes for success in Israel's agriculture and the Negev specifically is the intricate relationship scientists and farmers have, which equips the farmers with tools to succeed in their dreams but also to innovate in ways they didn't think were possible.


Many of the techniques and technologies developed here in Israel are exported abroad and deployed in deserts around the world, even more certain countries had official relations with Israel.


Israel's agricultural technology ecosystem has been thriving these days with the Israeli Innovation Authority allocating more funds, grants, and regulatory support to stimulate more innovation and growth in this sector. While it seems that Israel was running out of things to innovate in, agriculture is starting to look like the next space for economic growth.


Picture of a farm in the Negev desert
Picture of a farm in the Negev desert