Progressive Agriculture from KKL-JNF Reservoirs

Sunday, September 07, 2008 10:14 AM


International Success for Produce Grown with Purified Sewage Water


If we only knew that the waste water from showers in our homes in Jerusalem and Bet Shemesh would end up - after purification - in the markets of England, China, Russia and South Africa, we would no doubt, reconsider the potential solutions to Israel’s water crisis, on both the personal level and, certainly, on the national level. However, it takes a visit to the endless vineyards of Moshav Lachish, in the scorching August heat to demonstrate this route and the major role KKL-JNF plays in the sequence of events.


Moshav Lachish’s large reservoir, with a capacity of 1.25 million cubic meters, lies at the heart of a large, exciting project, the "fruits" of which we only encounter in the local supermarket as "Tali" grapes. It is doubtful whether consumers are aware of the magnitude of the achievement that makes British buyers today declare wholeheartedly that “the produce of Lachish Vineyards is the best in the world.”


Lachish Reservoir was built thanks to Friends of KKL-JNF Canada Joe Leibovic of Toronto and his brother Wolf. The reservoir has been in operation since 2006 and irrigates approximately 6,000 dunam (one dunam equals approximately a quarter of an acre) of orchards – mostly vineyards – in the fields of Moshav Lachish on the fringes of Israel’s desert region. “Around eight years ago we realized that our mere existence necessitated greater quantities of water for the area,” says Yossi Goren (63), Moshav Lachish’s Farm Coordinator and Director of the Lachish Reservoir Project. “This is one of the most arid intensively farmed areas that lie on the desert fringes. Without water we simply can’t do anything here and that’s why, over the course of seven years, we undertook, with massive help from KKL-JNF, the huge project of bringing purified sewage water from Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh all the way from Nahal Sorek to the Lachish region – a distance of 60 kilometers. But for this project Moshav Lachish would have been forced to reduce its fruit-growing area by between 40% - 50%.”


KKL-JNF was the only national body that joined hands with Moshav Lachish residents and other agricultural communities along the reclaimed-water route. “To establish the reservoir we contacted KKL-JNF, which, by Israeli standards, has always been exceptionally cooperative at all levels within the organization, from the World Chairman and senior officials through area managers to the workers in the field. We completed the last of the water pipes two years ago, and today we grow fifteen varieties of grape, mainly for the table, and more recently, a few for wine production too. In other orchards, peaches, almonds and pomegranates are grown,” says Yossi Goren.


Moshav Lachish’s fresh water allocation never sufficed for the development of intensive agriculture on a scale that would allow moshavniks to support themselves sufficiently.  In the absence of water quotas, farmers reduce irrigation of the vineyards to a minimum, and the vines, which received only 300 cubic meters of water per dunam per year, produced low yields that did not bring in sufficient profits to allow investment in further agricultural development. Today, with an abundance of purified sewage water to replace the fresh water, each dunam of vineyard in Lachish receives around 500 cubic meters of water per year, and the quality and size of the yields are astonishing. On an average, each dunam of vineyard yields around three tons of grapes for the table, and late varieties such as Helwani produce yields of five tons or more per dunam. Today, Moshav Lachish produces over 20,000 tons of grapes per year and the progressive growing and harvesting methods in use allow a regular supply of grapes from May until January, without flooding the market with quantities of produce that may affect prices.


The use of reservoirs enables the purified water to be stored over the winter months, when the vineyards do not require irrigation, for use during the summer, normally from April until November. In 2008, because of the drought, pumping from the Lachish Reservoir began as early as March, and a visit in the middle of August revealed that very little water was left in the reservoir. Nonetheless, the rows of vines (of certain specific varieties only) still laden with bunches of grapes awaiting the late harvest are evidence of the success that would have been impossible without the reservoirs.


Lachish farmers, all first and second generation residents of long-established kibbutzim and moshavim, have a humoristic explanation of their situation: “In Lachish we can sin, because we’re in paradise anyway and we don’t have to worry about not getting there,” they joke. Nevertheless, the place cannot be taken for granted. Yossi Goren, Dror Eliraz, manager of the farmers’ cooperative, and Nir Canetti, responsible for water locally – three men who are connected to the area and its agriculture by every fiber of their being – speak almost in unison. “It took about two years to build the reservoir. But the government bureaucracy surrounding the permits for its construction took another four years and held up development needlessly with no real justification. Today, in view of the results, it is hard to understand all these delays.”


Dror Eliraz (44) is a second-generation farmer in the Lachish region. At noon, standing on the ramp that allows a view of the reservoir, he says, “Just two years ago there was nothing here but a bare hill. Even now I get a feeling of excitement every time I stand here.” Dror leads us to his vineyard, laden with fruit whose harvest continues from September until the beginning of January. “Everything you see here,” he says, “would be dried up and dead without those 500 cubic meters of water per year. The water quotas we received in years gone by lasted us only until August. By September, October and November everything was dead. Today some 500 dunam of big Helwani grapes, are planted on the moshav.


"By making use of the moshav’s pool of expertise and research, we have developed a late harvesting method that involves protecting the vines from the rain – hopefully - by covering them with protective sheeting that diverts the early rains away from the bunches of fruit. It’s like storage in refrigeration plants, only in this case the storage method is being applied to vines, enables us to export fresh grapes for Christmas to Russia, for example. We have also developed methods of biological pest control that minimize use of pesticide sprays. Nowadays we spray only when we find a pest that threatens the harvest. To protect against vine moth, the main pest, we have adopted a method that was developed in France. We hang cords saturated with female vine moth sex hormone, pheromone, in the vineyards. The cords attract the males, throw them into a state of total confusion, and prevent them from mating with the females. In this way we prevent eggs from being laid inside the bunches.”    


Nir Canetti, himself a resident of Beit Guvrin, is responsible for reservoir operation and water-supply maintenance and supervision. In the 1950's Nir’s father arrived in Kibbutz Kedma as a hired agricultural laborer and Nir follows in his footsteps today, riding the seesaw of disappointment and prosperity. “In 2002 agriculture in Kedma collapsed as a result of two drought years and a severe water shortage. There was a reservoir here that had been built in 1990, which collected the sewage water from Moshav Timorim. But the reservoir leaked, and the water simply vanished. After that crisis KKL-JNF took it upon itself to restore, enlarge and make the original reservoir watertight, with the help of KKL-JNF Friends in Germany. Before the reservoir was restored we used to water only about 1,000 dunam of different varieties of vegetable. Today, with the rehabilitated reservoir, which is one of seventeen reservoirs used to store purified sewage water from Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh, we irrigate 5,000 dunam!


“You have to bear in mind that this water, too, has to be used wisely and very judiciously, because the reservoir in Kedma refills only between the end of September and the end of March, when the rate of refill is greater than the rate of use. The success of this delicate balance and the use of very high quality purified water give us great satisfaction. The level of tertiary purification has enabled Kedma to obtain a permit from the Ministry of Health to use the water for the irrigation of field crops, too, and not just for fruit. Look around you! Without this reservoir there would be nothing here now. You would not have seen the onions being harvested in the fields at the entrance to the community.”


Yossi Goren of Lachish has not allowed success to put an end to his activities. He can already visualize the additional reservoir that is planned for construction several kilometers south of the moshav, between two stretches of woodland through which endless expanses can clearly be seen. “I can already visualize the next regional reservoir, with a capacity of three to four million cubic meters, which will supply water to the entire area and allow the cultivation of another 5,000 to 7,000 dunam. This is an almost unique opportunity to make the region bloom. If we stand here on the ramp of Lachish Reservoir in another five or six years – all being well – I hope to be able to show you the orchards that will replace today’s tracts of field crops. Without dreams like this we shall never be able to achieve anything.”