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Ramat Negev Agro-Research Center

At the Ramat Negev Agro-Research Center, acacia trees bloom, casting long shadows by the greenhouses, and fat pumpkins ripen on the ground. Everywhere you look, jewel-like cherry tomatoes dangle above the sand, on vines strung to wires, carefully irrigated and nourished. While tiny tomatoes have been around for centuries, certain varieties of cherry tomatoes—including the popular tomaccio—were developed in Israel back in the 1970s. Here they grow in abundance, as do sweet peppers of all colors—yellow, green, red, chocolaty-brown, and purple.

People come here from all over the world to study how we grow things in the desert and how to fight against the desert’s continuing conquest of their land.
— Gadi Grinblat, Ramat Negev Agro-Research Center

The Ramat Negev Regional Council oversees this center, and agricultural experiments are conducted by onsite researchers as well as by scientists from Ben-Gurion University, the agriculture faculty of the Hebrew University, the Volcani Center, and elsewhere, in consultation with the Israeli Extension Service. It is a hotbed of innovation and discovery.

“People come here from all over the world,” Gadi Grinblat explains, “to study how we grow things in the desert and how to fight against the desert’s continuing conquest of their land.” It was here that scientists determined the importance, when irrigating with brackish water, of directing the water underneath the plant, so that it goes directly to the roots and doesn’t touch the upper parts. Otherwise, the salt in the water will harm the plants’ sensitive green leaves. Like most Israeli agricultural endeavors, the Agro-Research Center makes use of the drip-irrigation system, which was developed by the country’s Netafim company—the headquarters of which are also located in the Negev, at Kibbutz Hatzerim (for more on drip irrigation and Netafim, see Innovations).

Like the Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research , the Ramat Negev Agro-Research Center is happy to spread the word about its findings with the rest of the world. Israel’s MASHAV (Agency for International Development Cooperation) helps to make that happen through its agricultural/outreach arm, CINADCO (Center for International Agricultural Development Cooperation), and with the scientific research capabilities of the Volcani Center. Israeli agro-scientists are regularly sent out to demonstrate their findings, in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Central Europe, and the Middle East—and farmers and scientists from abroad are brought into Israel to study and share their knowledge as well. Not surprisingly, the focus is on Israel’s areas of expertise: growing food in semi-arid and arid zones, combating “desertification,” irrigation and water management, dairy farming, and strategies for the small farmer. The goals are vast and vital: to ensure food security and economic self-sufficiency.

Ramat Negev Agro-Research Center > 




Teaching the World How to Make the Desert Bloom at the Ramat Negev Agro-Research Center

Goats near Kibbutz SdeBoker. Photo by Dafna Tal, courtesy Israeli Ministry of Tourism and Creative Commons

Each morning, until his death in 1973, Ben-Gurion strolled along the edge of the massive and marvelous canyon known as Nahal Tzin by Sde Boker, deep in thought.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, “retired” to the Sde Boker kibbutz in 1953; though he would soon return to politics, he maintained a home here for the rest of his life. He had an abiding faith that the people of Israel would follow him into the desert and would find ways to turn it into a rich and fertile land—in his famous words, Israelis would “make the desert bloom.” Of course, this would take time: over the years, agricultural methods have been developed that allow for successful orchards and farms here; research and development stations have been created; vibrant academic centers have arisen in the Negev. And—just as Ben-Gurion foresaw—there has been some migration from Israel’s crowded and hectic cities to the calm of the desert.

Each morning, until his death in 1973, Ben-Gurion strolled along the edge of the massive and marvelous canyon known as Nahal Tzin by Sde Boker, deep in thought. Although Ben-Gurion seems a faraway fixture in history somehow, in fact this was not so long ago.  The desert home where Ben-Gurion lived can still be visited: everything is as it was when he and his wife, Paula, were here: the books on the shelves, the spartan furniture, the intimate rooms. Outside, David and Paula Ben-Gurion’s tombs overlook the broad Nahal Tzin, its ridges and hills unfolding to the horizon, glowing yellow and coral pink. It is one of the most spectacular views in the country.

Sde Boker kibbutz > 


David Ben-Gurion at Sde Boker, the Hub of the Negev

Young Bedouin Shepherd photo by Ed Brambley, courtesy Creative Commons.

The Bedouins of Israel are traditionally pastoral, nomadic, desert-dwelling Muslim Arabs; they make up about 2 percent of the Israeli population. While there are small Bedouin communities in the Galilee and the center of the country, the vast majority of Bedouins live in the Negev Desert.

Bedouins make up about 2 percent of the Israeli population

Their nomadic lifestyle is rapidly giving way to settled living, an inevitable process of modernization that is complicated by intractable issues of land rights, which successive Israeli governments have yet to resolve. While the Negev Bedouins are Israel’s most socioeconomically disadvantaged community, the number of Bedouin academics, businessmen, and activities is growing remarkably, with Bedouin women featured at the forefront of this important societal development. 

The Bedouins of the Negev: A Population Transforming

Zucchini plants grown from the sands of the Arava Desert. Photo by and © Vision Studio

Yair Station is a site of experimental greenhouses and myriad agricultural innovations, in the agricultural community—or moshav—of Hatzeva. Director Alon Gadiel explains that Yair Station is the central agricultural hub of the region, keeping its eye on hundreds of farms in this community. The faith in the potential of the desert is high among Israelis: in the coming years, Alon says, the population is expected to grow to 750 farming families in the region.

The faith in the potential of the desert is high among Israelis.

Yair Station does scientific research and development that helps everyone’s agricultural efforts. “We are working to solve problems that occur during the growing season. If there is suddenly a new pest or disease, or there is some phenomenon that has to be treated—that’s the sort of thing we take care of. We develop new technologies, new methods.” Alon told us that about 15 percent of what they are growing is organic—mostly vegetables, but also date trees, herbs, grapes, olives, and pomegranates. They cultivate flowers, too, nearly all of which are exported.

Sliced peppers—green, yellow, red—sampled at the station are surprisingly sweet, because they are irrigated with water that is partly brackish. Not only does the salt bring out the peppers’ sweetness, Alon explains, their nutritional benefits are boosted as well—particularly the levels of antioxidants.

In the contained heat of greenhouses, pepper plants climb high out of the sand, each with a feeding tube at the base of the stalk, infusing precise amounts of water and nutrients to the soil. Luscious, large melons grow here, and suspended from the ceiling are rows of troughs made of PVC, from which beautiful strawberries peek out. An expanse of gladiolas grow straight and proud; they will soon be shipped all over the world. The cultivation of exotic fish is also a thriving business here—while water is scarce, the temperature is just right (and solar heating is plentiful, of course): clownfish and their aquatic pals are exported all over the world.

 Yair Station >


Yair Station: An Abundance of Crops in the Arava Desert

Negev Desert, Makhtesh Ramon, Sunrise, 2012. Photo by Neil Folberg

Negev Desert, Makhtesh Ramon, Sunrise, 2012. Photo by Neil Folberg

The desert, like the sea and the mountains, is a planetary fact that is never fully understandable: it is too enormous, too varied, too ominous, and too beautiful. Each acre of the Negev Desert is unique, and as a landscape the whole is in a constant state of change. Photographer Neil Folberg captures the stunning incongruity of the desert with images like lush grapes, dangling heavy with sugar, against the backdrop of sand at the Negev’s Rota Winery.   

For the people of Israel, the desert is both a home and a crucial challenge. In order to survive here, this magnificent but unyielding terrain must be engaged and made into a living and fertile land.

The five photos below are accompanied by twenty more with the purchase of The Desert and the Cities Sing: Discovering Today’s Israel.


The Inspiring Landscapes of the Negev Desert