למנצח

In constant pursuit of understanding natural processes, of working with nature to bring about the best possible results for land, trees, animals and humans, we’ve stayed committed to organically growing our olives and letting our birds roam freely.

Problem is that there’s no easy way to ensure a fertile crop and abundant eggs without spraying artificial chemical fertilizers and pesticides, or containing the chickens in a small pen. We’re not going to do that, which means that we have to spend many hours figuring out how the different elements within the olive grove — trees, poultry, soil, pests and the microbial ecology that links them all — can exist in harmony. It’s a lengthy course of trial and error, observation and implementation, failure and experiments. One thing’s for sure: our hands are dirty and our boots are worn down.

Sukkot has brought the great gift of transition to the Weissman Farm. We had been fighting an uphill battle against the weeds, which were engulfing the trees. Then Bat-Chen and her haShomer HeChadash friends, along with Kayla, worked through the chag, tackling each tree, fighting off the chazirim shoots that threatened the kashrut of the upcoming masik, transforming the space from a wild jungle to a tamed grove.

Just as the psolet goren v’yekev, produced as the ancillary products of a previous year, are recycled into the schach required for a kosher sukkah, so too is the cycle within the farm: the prunings and clippings from the trees and shrubs around the moshav have all been mulched and strewn around our trees, tamping down any future weeds. The old growth is being reused.

ברוך אתה ה׳ אשר נתן לשכוי בינה להבחין בין יום ובין לילה

Things come full circle on Sukkot, the holiday of cycles. We encircle the holy  with our hakafot, we reenact the rain cycle with the nisuch hamayim ceremony, we sit in our transitional space of liminality in our sukkot, ushering out the past year and welcoming in the new year, drawing from the past as we look towards the future.  The end always leads to the beginning; decay and breakdown feed new growth.

You spend hours with trees and birds (really, the first time for any of us that we’ve been invested in something other than what’s in our houses, communities, books and screens), and you slowly start understanding the patterns of existence around you. You see how birds behave, how eggs behave, how trees behave, how predators and insects behave, and how systems don’t stand alone, but interrelate. Laminatze’ach: a song for the Conductor, who weaves together different parts into a perfect harmonious whole. 

What did King Shlomo do with the chochma (wisdom) granted him? He learned to speak to trees and imported animals to his zoo — לדעת מהות הנמצאים. To be fully adam, coming from the adama and returning to her, you need to understand your relationship and connectedness to the earth and all its creatures. 

We all feel more comfortable with our farm, more in tune with the seasons and the cycles now that we’ve been here for a few years. We grow on her, and she grows within us.

Let’s pray for a rainy winter, and all of the new growth and freshness — and abundant surprises, I’m sure — that will emerge come spring. 

 

The Chick-Mobile

If talk of animal husbandry and land regeneration doesn’t make your pulse race, skip on to the bottom for a cool video. Otherwise read on!

Life did indeed teem during corona lockdown. Our modest flock of chickens and turkeys took “sheltering in place” in a romantic direction, procreating like mad, and now we have hundreds of birds.

Can you spot the poult?

Some chicks and poults (turkey babies) hatched under their mommies, the old-fashioned way, but most of these corona babies were incubated as eggs, raised for a few weeks in the hatchery (a makeshift box that we kept in the machsan of our rental), and then released to the “tinokia,” a fenced-off area of the olive grove.

fun times in the tinokia

The tinokia was meant to protect the chicks from predators and getting lost in the huge grove, but it didn’t serve the overall purpose of our farm. We’re trying to have the animals serve the land, and have the land serve the animals: the birds (and eventually goats, sheep, and hopefully a cow or two, maybe even a horse?) are meant to forage for their food, and in turn their droppings keep the land naturally fertilized and tamed (from weeds and overgrowth).

So what Ira is fashioning is a “maze” of sorts, organized by the rows of olive trees. Turkeys in one aisle, chickens in another, babies in a third, maybe one day goats in a fourth, with a rotation of land that each is exposed to and rotation between the aisles as well. This means that each day, the animals get fresh pasture to forage and poop on, and no one piece of land gets mauled to exhaustion.

As for the babies, they need more protection from swooping predators and easier access to water and supplemental feed, so Ira fashioned a conestoga wagon for them that we call the Chick Mobile (I nixed “chick-magnet”). He’s moved the chicks from their old tinokia to their new digs. Here’s the chick mobile in action. Shabbat Shalom!

Old MacDonald Time

Spring has sprung at Meshek Si’ach ha’Sadeh (Conversations in the Field — our farm’s name!):

 

 

Ira’s trying out something on the farm — he calls it “layering.” Basically it means that we introduce different types of livestock into the kerem (olive grove), which he’s fenced off. They feed off the land through foraging, and in turn the land is “fed” through their “output.” Additionally, poultry love to pick through mammals’ droppings for fly larvae, cleaning the environment and ensuring pest control. Win-win that rejuvenates the grove naturally, obviating the need for any pesticides or chemical fertilizers! Goodness, the marvelous tidbits I’ve picked up on this journey…

They have the run of the place, and ten dunam is a lot of run. We started with ten chickens, 6 turkeys, and two very angry geese.  About two months in, the chickens started laying eggs in the nesting boxes that Ira built. Every day’s yield is exponentially larger. These are the real deal: totally free-range, organic, whatever other hip marketing term applies. But truly how chickens are meant to live, and how eggs are meant to be laid.

farm-fresh

Some eggs we eat, others we put in the madgerah (incubator). Twenty-one days later, voila! Baby chicks (we hope)

each one of these will Gd-willing be a meal come fall

Get this: you have about a week from when an egg is laid to “hold its development” in suspension. That means that 21 days from the day that the hen decides to brood (sit on her eggs, which hasn’t yet happened) or that you put the egg in the incubator, it should hatch. You can decide when to get that process started (again, within a week). Otherwise, you can just eat them as eggs (checking for blood, of course — but even if the egg was fertilized, it won’t usually form blood until it’s been incubated).

Meanwhile, one of the female turkeys has disappeared; we think she’s off nesting under a tree, which would be fantastic (turkeys notoriously have a hard time mating, but maybe we got lucky and one of them is sitting on her eggs somewhere in the grove). We’re planning on turkey for Seder night.

We recently added yet another “layer” to this experiment. Meet Liesel, Brigitta, Marta, Gretl and Kurt.

High on a hill was a lonely goatherd
Lay ee odl lay ee odl lay hee hoo
Loud was the voice of the lonely goatherd
Lay ee odl lay ee odl-oo

They are extraordinarily dumb animals who cowered the first day on top of the chickens’ nesting boxes. One of the hens was in the middle of laying her egg, but she seemed nonplussed by the goats and went on doing her thing.

The goats are a cheaper alternative to hiring paid labor to prune the weeds and trees, which have grown ridiculously fast since our olive harvest last November. Goats apparently eat EVERYTHING (except other animals). Let’s see if they can figure out how to get to work.

They’ve just started getting the hang of it…

Ira also bought a breed that he’s tasted before and says produces less-gamey meat than even lamb, but it’s going to take a lot for me to try goat. I’m not there yet. Though making goat cheese and labane is a very simple process, and I’m totally on board with that.

Finally, the geese. Tupac and Notorious B.I.G., or Bernardo and Riff, whatever — they don’t deserve names. They are total gangstas and we don’t know what to do with them. Ira even got them a wading pool, for which they are spectacularly ungrateful.

Here’s Ira with my mother-in-law and brothers last month, warning them about the geese’s thuglife:

Trigger-warning: no one was hurt by the charging birds. My mother-in-law very impressively allowed me to share this with you all though:

Noah (my brother) suggested fois-gras might serve humanity better, and I think by this point we’re all in agreement.

Giyus Kal

He was born for this — literally. That was my thought as they handed him to me nineteen years ago, right after: thank you God for giving him to us, and for making me a mother. Second thought: one day he shall become a soldier of Israel.

As he got an aliyah and a special “mishebeirach” yesterday on the very section in the parasha where we read of Leah bearing her Reuven, I remembered when our Ruvi was born, and what my dreams were for this child, and they were very specific: through him we will finally belong to the People of Israel in a way that we just couldn’t up until this moment. 

It’s not that we’ve been biding our time from then until now; we’ve all been plenty busy growing, finding ourselves, discovering how we each contribute as individuals and as a family to Am Yisrael. We have lived, we have worked, we have borne, we have paid, we have planted, we have taught, we have walked through wadis and up mountains and down streets and through malls and swayed in prayer in living rooms and synagogues and olive groves and stood still at sirens and ran to safe rooms and sat through a hundred Bnei Akiva daglanuyot and danced wildly to the best of Israeli music — all here, for twenty years, learning from Israelis, watching carefully how to do things, stumbling through conversations and then speaking confidently in front of seasoned veterans, trying to weave our own unique thread into the tapestry of Israel so that it will hold fast and add its own special beauty to the emerging glory that is the greatest of enterprises: the return of Am Yisrael to Eretz Yisrael. 

All this time, though, I felt that we were waiting. Not impatiently, really — many months (maybe even whole years) would pass when of course I didn’t think of what was to come. And suddenly here we are, at the IDF recruitment center in Tiveria on a crisp Sunday morning. As firstborn Reuven served to secure Leah to the family of Israel, so too our firstborn Reuven’s service secures us to our People. 

Ruvi is the first of our seven sabras: a proud Jew without having been forced into the identity by a Diaspora upbringing that would have made him the other. Here, he is easily, joyously and organically part of the Jewish nation. His absolute conviction to serve Am Yisrael is the most natural thing about him, and he has the greatest merit to serve his people in a way that we never did. He is the first among our parents’ descendents to do so, and he and their many grandchildren who share this same ironclad conviction to serve make them impossibly proud of the honor they bring to our family and the whole of Israel. I don’t know that any of Ruvi’s grandparents had ever dreamed in their youth of where their grandchildren now stand at the cusp of adulthood, but I do know of their deep pleasure. They and we are joined by countless generations of our ancestors who, I imagine, are looking on today with an unspeakable joy. 

 

Our family’s thread, first spun those nineteen years ago, is now secure in this grand tapestry. It is fine, shining and strong, multi-colored and woven tight. May the Creator of all, the Mighty God of Israel who cherishes His people as the ראשית, keep the ראשית of our family — and the many chayalim and chayalot who defend our nation alongside him — firm and straight in soul, mind and body. 

אשרינו

מה טוב חלקינו

ומה נעים גורלינו

ומה יפה חיילנו

ומה מופלא מדינתינו

ומה קדוש ארצינו

ומה אדיר בוראנו

ומה היקר עמינו

 

 

Masik! Part 2

The next generation of farmers finishes up the rush job (olives shouldn’t be left sitting for more than a night or two before going to the beit bahd).

just a few more weeks before this boy trades in the bamboo rod for an uzi
some of the fabulous bnot sherut who did an amazing job

There were thousands of public and private oil presses throughout Eretz Yisrael in antiquity, since olive oil served everyone as the primary source for lighting fuel and cooking oil (plus medicines, hygiene — more on that in a bit –, and sacrifices in the Temple). To learn more about this critical aspect of daily life in Yisrael’s earlier eras, click here for an excellent photo essay.

בימים ההם

 

בזמן הזה

We brought our yield to the hopping beit bahd in Kfar Kana, around ten minutes away (I always hum “Od Yishama” as we drive through this town — vehameivin yavin). Mohammed, the super friendly manager who bonded with Chachi over their respective hearing aids, made sure that our gondola was on the “kosher line” — meaning that all of the yields on that line are from kramim that are orlah-free. And here’s how it’s done:

A huge fan blows the leaves off, and the olives then fall down into the washer.

Then they’re crushed, leaving a thick paste:

This is followed by a filtering process which separates the gefet (sludge solids) from the liquid. Mohammed told us that the Arabs use the gefet as smokeless fuel to warm their homes and heat their water. Years ago, we bought a huge tub of this stuff scented with lemon to use as an exfoliating soap — it’s messy, yes, but kind of like a mud treatment. Companies turn the gefet into fancy products like these. Nothing goes to waste!

our lovely multi-purpose sludge

Finally, the liquids go through one last filtering process, spilling our funky neon-yellow “liquid gold” into vats. The crazy color mellows into a green-tinged gold after the oxygen bubbles settle down.

Heartfelt apologies, Sabba, for the Yankees hat. Don’t know where he picked it up

Ma’aser is separated — a tithing obligation for all olive harvests produced on Jewish-owned land in Eretz Yisrael What a zchut to be able to fulfill this mitzvah!

A bracha (blessing) links human industry and endeavor to the Source of all creation. The root of the word ברכה is ברך — that which connects (like a knee [ברך] connects the thigh to the shin, and a huge collection of interconnected droplets is called a בריכה [pool]). So before a Jew partakes of his bounty, he pauses to connect sustenance with acknowledgement that God has provided. L’Chaim!

Masik! (Pt. 1)

    זַיִת רַעֲנָן יְפֵה פְרִי תֹאַר קָרָא ה’ שְׁמֵךְ

נקראו ישראל זית רענן — שהם מאירים לכל (שמות רבה ל״ו

God has named you as a leafy olive tree, gorgeous with beautiful fruit (Jeremiah 11:16).

Yisrael is called an olive tree because they light up the world (Shmot Rabbah 36)

Eretz Yisrael is dripping this week — not with rain, but with oil from a huge collective olive harvest. Presses work round the clock and it’s hard to get a free window to bring your yield, because everyone is doing their masik [olive harvesting and pressing] all during these few weeks. Farmers had held out as long as they could for a good rain to clear the dust off the olives, but nothin’ doin’, so we’re all hard-pressed (yes, pun intended) to rush these olives off the trees before they over-ripen.

Ira has been anticipating this week for many months. This time last year, we took a look at the kerem [olive grove] and decided a masik just wasn’t worth it — there weren’t enough olives on the neglected trees.

October 2018

The kerem needed to be nurtured back to life with massive pruning, fertilizing and watering, which is just what he did.

October 2019

What a difference a year (and a lot of blood, sweat and tears, including a tough round of awful Q-fever) can make! We’re now ready for the First Annual Weissman Family Farm Masik.

STEP 1: Have the mashgiach [rabbinic kashrut overseer] out to inspect the trees (a must so that the beit bahd [olive press] will agree to take your yield). Here the mashgiach is pointing out a problem — chazirim (shoots that are too far from the trunk to be considered part of the tree.  Any fruit that might grow on chazirim would be orlah (fruit that grows on a tree during its first three halachic years, which is forbidden to eat), and therefore off limits for the masik):

 

mashgiach pointing to a chazir. The shoots closer to the trunk aren’t orlah

The mashgiach will then make a couple of spot-checks during the masik to make sure that all is in order.

STEP 2: Line up your crew. Since we’ve never done this before, Ira sought out lots of advice from our experienced neighbors. A great group of bnot sherut organized through Hayogev are helping us with the harvest itself, plus he hired a contractor to load all of the olives into a huge “gondola” and transport that to the beit bahd.

STEP 3: Tell whichever kids are home that it’s harvest time (no school today, Little House on the Prairie style), and bake some pancakes for sustenance. But just this once, we’ll call them flapjacks, because it seems right under these circumstances:

STEP 4: Head out to the grove and get lost in the very simple pleasure of repetitive thrashing. You lay out a large mesh sheet under each tree, take bamboo rods and whack away. I preferred the pick-by-hand method which works nicely for the lower branches.

Around 1/4 of the yield

Tomorrow, 21/11/2019, we hope to be able to offer Masik! Part 2, wherein we do the nikuf (pulling from the tree) on the other half of the kerem, and bring the whole lot to the beit bahd. Stay tuned…

Harvest

To remind us all that Shavuot is really an agricultural festival — Chag HaKatzir (Harvest Festival), or Chag HaBikkurim (Festival of the First Fruits) — kibbutzim and moshavim have traditionally thrown down the Israeli version of a 4-H county fair on the eve of the holiday. On display are the latest agricultural tools and tractors, prize livestock, farm-related athletic competitions, pie contests (in our case, cheesecake contests) and such.

There were activity stands for the kids, like create your own cow:

 

And the crowd favorite, pile into the hay to find the hidden candy:

Here’s me holding some soap that Tziona has hand-crafted:

And here’s a friend explaining to the kids what exactly this merry little hoedown is all about:

But the most precious part is what the end of that short video began to capture: all babies born within the past year were invited up onto the stage as a “display” of our bikkurim — our fruits of this year’s bounty:

“our baby chicks”

For me, at least, this year has thrown the other — dare I say more central? — concepts of Shavuot (wheat harvest, celebration of bounteous fruiting trees, deep communion with the Land and its rhythms) into much sharper focus. As Ira and Ruvi sign up to get their tractor licenses, as warm and slightly misshapen vegetables suddenly appear on my kitchen counter, as weird and obscure words like maftema and blil just suddenly pop up in casual conversation, this Shavuot “heppening” now seems like the most natural thing in the world to a gal who had always spent the week leading up to Chag in feverish preparation of shiurim. What I’m recognizing is that it needn’t be either Zman Matan Torateinu or Hag HaKatzir/Hag HaBikkurim. It really should be both, and I’m just beginning to discover surprisingly delightful ways of incorporating all of the different aspects of this complex day into our new reality.

Order and Chaos: A Love Story

Here are my snapshots of a wheat field in Sde Ilan, from planting through harvest (with Tavor in the background for perspective):

after the first rain
Erev Tu B’Shvat, 5779
Erev Pesach
harvest, early May

Such welcome predictability. Soon we’ll celebrate the harvest, as the Torah has mandated, on Hag HaKatzir (6 Sivan), marking the culmination of the age-old cycle that had started back in October.

Round and round, planting and harvesting, so predictable that we can set our religious calendars by this agricultural cycle of life and death. Our aesthetic sensibilities are gratified by neat fields of planted crops — it all might be tied to mollifying any deeply-rooted evolutionary anxieties left over from an age before supermarkets. We are naturally calmed when we see our food stores organized into anticipated yield. God created us with a compulsion to subdue the earth, and the order that we impose on her fulfills that very basic human need.

 

This is how we generally interact with our world: we’re built to make order, to divide continents into countries, to build fences to keep out predators, to make things neat and pretty and tidy and predictable and controlled. It’s good for the body and soul, utterly human.

In the absence of human interference, though, life thrives in a different way. This second approach of Creation is far more threatening to humans, but it has an aesthetic that is equal to (if not surpassing) the neat rows of corn or carrots. It is the wild chaos of natural growth, as random and unpredictable as life truly can be. If we step back from interfering, from processing, scheming and manipulating, the earth will determinately push forth a riot of its own making, varieties of plants and flowers that compete against each other for survival.

 

It was a submission of to the wisdom of nature — that animals do best when they can eat freely from native and uncultivated vegetation, and we in turn will do best by them and by ourselves by allowing for that process — that led to a weird revolution of sorts that has our fellow moshavnikim scratching their heads. We decided to rejuvenate our field au naturel, a look that’s alarmingly wild and does indeed make me anxious:

(Note: this wouldn’t work if we wanted to grow all of our food from the ground. The aquaponics system will hopefully handle the veg, and the fields will provide for our proteins.)

Exhausted from years of modern controlled monoculture farming, with regular crop dusting to keep out any insects and chemical fertilizers to mask the damage done to the soil by growing only one type of crop, our field seemed on the brink of burnout when we first moved in. But such is God’s commitment to this world: life insists on pushing forth, even if you don’t expect it to. We scattered random seeds of wild plants indigenous to this region with no tilling and no water, no chemicals or pesticides, and the plants triumphed. There’s clover, vetch and wild alfafa in them there pastures. This whole luxurious mess will all be mowed down in a few months to sink back into the ground as natural nutrient-filled mulch; the hope is that these perennials will reemerge on their own next year so that our livestock can graze on what the earth naturally provides.

 

Michael Pollan writes often about his garden, and the special corner he keeps “in chaos.” While a garden is a thing of beauty, both aesthetic and functional, so is his unkempt corner — and not just because it serves to throw the straight rows of his peonies into triumphant relief. There is beauty in the randomness, where a lone red poppy might shoot up among the weeds, unexpected and entirely unpredictable, capricious and therefore stunning.

can you spot it?! 

Moving to a totally new context — like making aliyah, or going fully rural like we have — can have you working overtime to retain control and stick to the plan. It is the human way, after all, to try and manage our lives, and to control things, as if life was a machine that I could program and determine the outcome. But if you surrender to the inevitability of randomness in our world, remaining steadfast and true only to yourself, understanding that the one and only thing you can ever control is your own response to the sock-pow (and quieter) surprises that are an inevitable part of life, then you start to see the great beauty in that very randomness that scares us all.

Don’t get me wrong — I love those neat and tidy fields, and I always will — but I also am beginning to understand the importance of letting life just be. It is an awesome and inspiring beauty, life left unfettered and free to express itself. What emerges from that randomness are these surprising opportunities that we could never have even imagined, pushing themselves determinedly into our lives like that random poppy in the spread of wild growth.  

two more — look carefully

So many of us glide back and forth in life between our need to dominate the earth, and our willingness to submit to its mysteries and surprisingly unexpected gifts. Right now, in our lives, our family is deeply living both of these approaches, as they play out before us in the landscape that we’re privileged to call home.

 

Tu b’Shvat Snapshots

Today, on the eve of Tu b’Shvat, we ventured back out to the fields, which have been a swampy, blessed mess for a while now.

The wheatgrass is so much higher than it was just a month ago.

Winter here, for me, has meant sinking. The whole moshav turns swampy and deep. You get stuck in the muck, and as you slosh your way through the mud puddles, it brings you back to any hazy image you might have of yourself as a very young child in galoshes, or at least to the pictures of you wearing the boots lined with plastic bags. There is caked and packed mud everywhere, on every shoe, until you don’t notice it anymore and you just get used to the squishiness of moving around.

I’ve sunk deeply in more than just the mud. My plan this first year was to go around when I can, when there’s ever an opportunity, with people who can teach me what I need to know about my new home. I’ve seen Havat HaShomer with a ninety-five year old woman who hadn’t been back to her original home there for seventy years, toured Sejera with a dear neighbor whose earliest childhood memories were of his grandfather’s home there, learned from the great-granddaughter of the Sobotnikim who founded the moshav that she’s called home her whole life, and tried to understand Kfar Tavor through the eyes of a native son whose family has never left. I’ve hiked the Sanhedrin trail with the visionary who first dreamed of such a shvil, learned about the Druze communities with a Druze guide whose mother had passed away that week but what of it, really, since she is now alive somewhere else, pecked my way through ruins with the archaeologists who have spent years trying to see a wall where most only see a tumble of stones. I’ve spent hours in the living room of my friends Yossi and Yael, experts in the Lower Galil who have too many degrees between them to keep track, trying to line things up in my head, to keep this huge confusing jumble of new information organized and accessible.

That’s when you can start feeling stuck and hopeless, and it’s happened to me before. When you sink with all of your heart and conviction way down deeply into the experience, you lose your stride. You plod along, focusing only on finding solid footing, knowing that you’re helpless at the moment to make sense of (much less express) your newfound knowledge. Second Aliyah tumbles into R’ Meir baal haNes plunges into Byzantine-era synagogues skids into Christian/Moslem relations in Arabe. Like I said, I’ve jumped into enough seemingly-bottomless pools in my  life to know that things work themselves out in time, and the muteness (where I’m helpless at making myself understood in any language) and anxiety do eventually dissipate.

The lower Galil wasn’t conquered in a day, and it will take me many years to fully feel akin to this region. But I suppose it doesn’t hurt that I’ve literally dug in my heels over these last few months, shimmying under barbed-wire fences and falling flat on my face in soggy riverbeds, trying to absorb it all.

Crops are growing thick and strong this year; it’s been a rainy winter, and that’ll do it.

after the first rain
Erev Tu B’Shvat, 5779

We’ve been taking it all in, absorbing all the newness like the earth absorbs the rain — which is to say that a lot is run-off, and will have to be re-absorbed in time. Suddenly, though, it’s Tu b’Shvat: a reminder that shift is afoot, that the deepest rhythms of nature move us all towards new growth and change, even if we can’t ourselves sense it quite yet. Soon, I know, we’ll more readily find ourselves on solid ground.

Tachlis #3 — Fish and Plants: A Love Story (in Experimental Phase)

Disclaimer: We’ve been “farming” for all of five minutes. So nothing in the following post should be misunderstood as indicating that we know what we’re doing, because we don’t.

“So what exactly do you want to grow on the farm?” (a reasonable question to which we have a long and short answer)

 

Short Answer: Everything, really, that we can.

 

Long Answer: We are trying to see if we can grow most of our own food. Our family’s diet habits have shifted over the past few years, and now we eat mostly whole and unprocessed foods: vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy and animal-based proteins (there’s still plenty of junk in the house, and since we can’t grow chocolate, we will still have our account at St. Coby’s Tzarchania of Processed Foods). We’d like to grow all of the “whole foods,” except for the grains. We’re hoping to develop a certain autonomy when it comes to the quality of what we’re consuming, The thinking is that if we grow it ourselves, we know more or less how it was grown (organically, free-range eggs, pastured animals), and how it comes to the table (no packaging, compassionate slaughter).  

Our farm includes a sizable olive grove, so hypothetically that’s our oil supply. (The olive grove had been quite neglected, so we’ve started tending to the trees and hope to fertilize the grove with these giant mounds of cow dung we’ve been gifted by our generous neighbors, plus with the mulch from the pruned trees. Let’s see if that rejuvenates the trees and increases yield next fall.)

 

Those dark piles in front of the grove? Special gift from a special neighbor…

We hope to raise pastured livestock for protein and dairy — mainly sheep, a few cows, and chickens.  To do that, we need to plant grasses and plants that the animals can graze on. The field had traditionally been planted with a cash crop, like wheat:

A neighbor’s wheat sprouting after the first rain, Mt. Tavor in the background

Instead, Ira planted wild grasses indigenous to this region in the hopes that we can “re-grass” the soil and then successfully pasture the animals. We’d like to plant a few fruit and nut trees around the perimeter as well. But what about the bulk of the produce — the vegetables and most fruits? Are we tilling, sowing, planting, reaping?

First, the problems with the whole “Farmer Joe” model of doing things:

  1. Soils in Israel have been degraded by farming. Farmers haven’t necessarily kept to an annual rotational cycle of planting, and monoculture (raising a single crop) has depleted the soil of its vibrancy. Growing in the soil is unpredictable because the soil isn’t currently up to par.
  2. Conditions (climate, elevation, unpredictable rainfall) do not allow for growing a huge variety of foods in one particular area. There is only so much you can do with zucchini and eggplant — we want the whole rainbow of foods available.
  3. Water is very expensive, and traditional farming methods are not at all efficient. If there is sufficient rainfall, most of the water seeps back down into the aquifer and does not get absorbed by the plants. And that’s only IF there’s sufficient rain — plus, the rainy season is limited to the winter here. (Fun fact: did you know that it’s currently illegal to collect rainwater here for your own personal use? The rain, LEGALLY, belongs to the Land of Israel, and you can’t steal it away from her…)
  4. Pests and disease are far more rampant in a traditional soil-based farming model. It’s crushing to invest so much money, time and energy into planting, only to see your produce and trees decimated by the red spider mite (not to mention kashrut issues involving bugs and produce — it is forbidden to eat insects, so halachically-observant Jews must carefully clean away all insects from any produce they consume. This is a time-and-energy sucker, I can tell you from much first-hand experience!)

 

Solutions include resigning yourself to growing just a few crops that do well in this region (olives and almonds), and to spraying pesticides and chemical fertilizers over your crop to keep ravaging insects away and the soil properly nitrated. Since we want to eat everything, and since we want our produce to be organically-grown with no chemicals in the soil or pesticides on the crop, we’re exploring an old/new idea called aquaponics.

an aquaponics greenhouse — Ira’s dream

Since I was introduced to the whole idea quite recently, I’ll rely on a seasoned expert to define the concept: “Aquaponics is the cultivation of fish and plants together in a constructed, recirculating ecosystem utilizing natural bacterial cycles to convert fish waste to plant nutrients. This is an environmentally friendly, natural food-growing method that harnesses the best attributes of aquaculture (raising fish) and hydroponics (growing plants in water) without the need to discard any water or filtrate or add chemical fertilizers.” (Sylvia Bernstein, Aquaponic Gardening)

 

Basically, what this means is that the fish poop is great fertilizer for the plants, and the plants in turn filter out all of the ammonia from the fish tank, so the fish thrive. This whole symbiotic system can be as big or as small as you wish (Ira’s envisioning a greenhouse so that the conditions can be controlled and many different crops can be raised, plus there are far fewer rodents and insects in that environment. Currently, though, he’s experimenting with a tiny scaled-down system to figure out the kinks. He’s built himself a small tank, figured out how to construct a syphon/pump system and is testing out a few different types of grow beds, as you can see in the pictures).

Ira and Shalva standing over the fish tank; in the forefront are two different types of grow beds to grow produce

Hypothetically, you can raise a huge number of fish annually, plus a ridiculous surplus of vegetables in a small space, on very little water (since the water is constantly pumped between the fish tank and the grow beds). Lots of protein, lots of veg, extremely sparing use of water, no chemical fertilizer, avoiding pests — Eureka! I do believe we’ve got ourselves a potential solution.

40 happy tilapia and 10 happy goldfish in their new home

Time will tell, though. Here’s what I asked Ira (who took a course in aquaponics, so he knows much more than I do — but insists that yet again I add the disclaimer that he’s very new to this):

  • What kind of fish can we grow?

Tilapia, mainly, though perhaps some kinds of bass — no salmon. But you don’t have to harvest the fish. They can just live out their happy lives in the tank.

  • We can grow ANYTHING? As in…(eyes closed, hands clasped)…blueberries? (holding breath)

Well, pretty much anything. But blueberries are very tricky, so that might not work out. You can grow fruiting trees in the grow beds, though. All herbs, green leafies, pretty much every veg you can think of including roots and tubers (these need a specific type of grow bed called a “wicking” bed) grow spectacularly well in this system. 

  • How much upkeep is necessary?

Not a whole lot, but you do need to test the water on a somewhat regular basis to make sure that the (natural) filtering system is working, and troubleshoot if it’s not. Plus the pumps need to be in good working condition. I can follow all of this on an app.

Here’s hoping that his experiment is fruitful (literally), and that he can move on to more large-scale production. Meanwhile, we have to start tackling the halachic implications of growing produce this way, plus eventually think about the halachic issues involved in raising animals for dairy/eggs/meat. Though Ira has started learning hilchot shchita, there’s so much more that we need to learn. But as the mishna says: “He who learns in order to do, is granted the means to learn, teach, observe and practice” (Avot 4:6)  Let’s hope we manage to learn and to put into practice before Shmitta year arrives, when things will get a whole lot trickier down on the farm!