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Seeds of goodwill sprout from Israel’s valley of plenty

Rachel Baxendale, The Australian

Israel’s saline Arava Valley ­receives only 20mm-50mm of rain a year, yet 90 per cent of its 3500 residents are farmers growing capsicums, eggplant, dates, figs, tomatoes, melons, flowers, grapes and fish, producing up to 60 per cent of the country’s agricultural exports.

The success is a triumph of community spirit and breakthrough technology the Israelis are keen to share with Australia, with a delegation of experts both teaching and learning during a 10-day tour this month.

The 10-day tour, part of the Arava Australia Partnership, brought agricultural experts from the valley to Sydney, Melbourne and surrounding regions.
Among them was Maayan Plaves Kitron, horticulture ­research co-ordinator at the Central and Northern Arava Research and Development Centre, who ­arrived at the valley more than a decade ago with her husband, also an agronomist.

The tiny community, between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea on the Jordanian border, accepts new members on the basis of good character first, agricultural expertise second.
Like many Aravans, all of whom came to the region from elsewhere, Ms Kitron’s ancestry is far-flung: her mother was born in Yemen and her father in Israel to Polish parents who had escaped the Holocaust.
Ms Kitron, who grows flowers with her husband, says they owe their success in the valley to other community members.
“The experienced farmers mentor the newer farmers — that’s why it works,” she said.
Like all their neighbours, they generate all their produce from a 5ha block.

Much of the Arava Valley’s production is made possible by ­extremely precise drip irrigation technology, much of it developed in the region by world-leading companies such as Netafim.
Educator Hanni Arnon founded the Arava International Centre for Agricultural Training 21 years ago, aiming to bring young farmers from across the world to the valley so they could take home knowledge of arid agricultural techniques.
“Our focus is on students from developing countries, so that they can go back home with knowledge of how to farm efficiently,” Ms Arnon said.

Ms Kitron and Ms Arnon’s ­delegation, which included an aquaculture researcher and an arid farming agri-tech expert, toured Victoria’s world-renowned Koo Wee Rup asparagus-growing region southeast of Melbourne last week.
They joined Nuffield farming scholarship chief executive Jim Geltch and current scholar and ­asparagus farmer James Terry. Billed as a “Rhodes scholarship for farmers”, the Nuffield scholarship offers Australians on the land the chance to study farming overseas.

Mr Geltch said having visited Israel several times, he believed the farming world had much to learn there.
“You’ve got to ask, why is so much innovation coming out of Israel?” he said.
“I think it’s got something to do with the fact that there’s a risk ­attached to just living in Israel. I walk down (Melbourne’s) Collins Street, and I worry we’ve become too relaxed and comfortable. We’ve got to rediscover that drive to take risks and succeed.”

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