Losing the farm

During this pandemic, I fully appreciate our farmers and food suppliers. Food shopping has become an adventure and a challenge. I am trying to adjust to this new reality, and continue to live my life, thank God, adhering to the publicized essential guidelines.

My family and I have adapted our daily lives to live with the danger that is all around us. We are balancing self-quarantine while protecting ourselves, our families, and our neighbors. The immediate concern for my household is staying healthy. We spend a lot of time wiping and spraying disinfectant, on everything. However, we all need to eat.

Many of my favorite foods are simply not available, and many food products are limited to one item for purchase per person. With a lot of time to think, I have been reminiscing on the good old days, and fondly recalling the Jaffa orange which as a child was my favorite snack. Coincidentally, I just read that this 200-year-old citrus variety may be disappearing.

Only 1.3% of Americans are employed as farmers and ranchers. That’s about 2.6 million people working in about 2 million farms, down from a peak of 7 million in the 1930s. In Israel, where the Jaffa orange originates, the Israelis that work in agriculture are only 1% of the workforce, down from 18% in 1958.

Jaffa farmers

Ottoman farmers began cultivating this thick-skinned orange two centuries ago, and it became the most well-known export originating from the Middle East. The Rothschild family clan funded the plantations of the Jaffa orange groves in the early 20th century, and Jews and Arabs flocked to the area, expanding this booming export. Europeans and soon Americans considered it a gourmet and exotic food and by 1980, 1.8 million tons a year were being shipped worldwide.

Today, Israel has completely shifted away from its agrarian roots and has become a new start-up nation. Agricultural exports have fallen from 40% in the 1950s to 2% today. Tel Aviv and the adjacent historic port city of Jaffa, the town for which this orange variety was named, has been experiencing a building boom.

Idan Zehavi is a third-generation orange grower, and he recently lamented;

“Land here in the center of Israel is so expensive, most of the orchards were cut down”.

Karnataka Flug, former governor of the country’s central bank said the shift “from basic agriculture like Jaffa oranges to top-of-the-line tech” does make sense economically. “Israel doesn’t have any comparative advantage in agriculture. Water is not abundant here. Land is not abundant here.”
The high tech industry is booming in Israel in general and the techies are using their skills to help the agricultural sector. More than 200 startups and venture capitalists have more than doubled their investment in agricultural interests.

Netafim started in 1965 as an early pioneer in drip irrigation. They have supplied sensors and software, that assist farmers in controlling their water irrigation more accurately. They have grown to the global leader in precision irrigation.

Taranis which was founded in 2015, provides sub-millimeter high-resolution aerial imagery that helps farmers identify where and when they need to apply water, pesticides or herbicides.

Vertical Field, was founded in 2006 and has recently expanded to the United States. This is agricultural technology that allows the growing of food plants on walls, which translates to less use of land and space and less use of water.

Veritical field

In spite of all these high tech solutions at their disposal, growing oranges in Israel seems doomed. Agricultural workers in Israel need to earn 10 times the wages as in neighboring Egypt, Morocco, and Turkey, just to survive. Most farmers have diversified their crops to less thirsty crops, like olives and grapes. Suburban development, expensive land, and a highly educated, high tech workforce are eventually going to shrink the Jaffa orange groves to only the domestic market. I can’t remember the last time I found a Jaffa Orange in the supermarket.

Israel’s startups are already moving to the future:
Eviation, has flown straight to the future with the introduction of the groundbreaking, all-electric passenger plane. The new aircraft named The Alice was introduced in the 2019 Paris Air Show, and because it’s electric it has zero emissions. Cape Air has ordered 92 planes to be delivered in 2022, to be used for passenger service between New York City and points in New England. The range for Alice is 650 miles, so these routes make perfect sense.

From Oranges to Futuristic Electric Planes

Back in Tel Aviv Idan Zehavi is still working his grandfather’s Jaffa orange groves. He has recently started a pick your own fruit operation. City slickers looking for the nostalgic life of the early farming pioneers have been bringing their families to pick bushels of oranges on the weekends.
What a great idea! I can’t wait for Covid-19 to end and I can get on a plane again. Even techies need to get back to nature and self pick a sweet Jaffa orange before they disappear as they already have in the USA.

Jake Tewel

About the Author: Jake Tewel holds a Masters Degree from YU. He has been a wine seller, caterer, and a million miler for the past 15 years. Jake is a best friend, great neighbor, your go-to travel person, father, grandfather, and loving husband. He is now focusing his efforts on heart-healthy nutrition, exercise, and travel.