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The Land

Scientist Ellen Graber of the Volcani Center with biochar agriculturist Nadav Ziv. From the film  Solutions from the Land

Scientist Ellen Graber of the Volcani Center with biochar agriculturist Nadav Ziv. From the film Solutions from the Land

Ellen Graber is a founder of the Israel Biochar Research Network (iBRN). She is a highly charged, dynamic, and thoughtful woman—a prudent scientist who understands that we don’t yet know all there is to know about putting biochar into our soil. She cautions that it is not a “magic bullet” that will solve all our agronomic and climatic problems. But she also recognizes that the potentials of biochar are enormous. In 2013 Ellen was named Scientist of the Year by the Academic Committee of the Volcani Center for her work with what she calls the “biochar vision.” Volcani scientists and the iBRN are looking into biochar’s long-term effects in the earth, its impact on soil-borne and foliar diseases, how it acts in compost, and much more. They are also considering the major economic impact that biochar might have in the long run.         

Ellen Graber and the Volcani Center are at work on a number of critical challenges facing our planet, from water shortage to the energy crisis to climate change to feeding the planet.

Ellen and the Volcani Center are at work on a number of critical challenges facing our planet, from water shortage to the energy crisis to climate change to feeding the planet. As at so many other Israeli science centers, it is understood that whatever answers are uncovered here will have an effect not only in Israel, but around the world. In its best form, scientific research—unlike politics—is not bound by frontiers. Borders, after all, are not eternal, but knowledge is. Good researchers understand how vital it is to share what they learn: to give and receive. Luckily, Ellen Graber is there, looking out for us. 

Israel Biochar Research Network > 

Volcani Center >

Stills from the film Solutions from the Land, available with the purchase of The Desert and the Cities Sing: Discovering Today’s Israel

Scientist Ellen Graber and the Potentials of Biochar

An aerial view, shows cows moving through the lush cover crop on a U.S. farm after the earth has been treated with biochar and tended organically. Photo courtesy Michael Arison

What exactly is biochar and how does it work? While it seems a very twenty-first-century topic, biochar has actually been around in some form for centuries: the pre-Colombian Amazonians developed a dark, rich, and fertile soil, terra preta, or “black earth,” using a similar method. In brief, biochar is a kind of charcoal made from organic materials that have undergone a firing process known as pyrolysis, which takes place in the absence of oxygen. Added to soil, biochar can improve fertility and, by “sequestering” carbon—that is to say, by not allowing it to be broken down easily or rapidly—can reduce emissions from the biomass that would otherwise naturally degrade into greenhouse gases. The carbon in biochar resists degradation—in fact, biochar can hold carbon in soil for hundreds, even thousands, of years—thus preventing it from re-entering the carbon cycle.

If you could continually turn a lot of organic material into biochar, you could, over time, reverse the history of the last two hundred years. . . . We can run the movie backward. We can unmine some of the coal, undrill some of the oil. We can take at least pieces of the Earth and—this is something we haven’t done for quite a while—leave them Better Than We Found Them.
— Bill McKibben, conservationist and author

Biochar, to put it simply, is a method of replenishing soil with carbon, making it rich and fertile. It is also a potential tool in the battle against climate change. One of the chief causes of global warming is the overload of carbon dioxide as a “greenhouse gas” in the air: humans produce CO2 (chiefly by burning fossil fuels, such as coal, natural gas, and oil, for energy and transportation), and also have depleted natural systems—like forests—that remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Biochar has the potential to mitigate that process; in fact, well-designed biochar systems can actually be carbon negative, because they result in the net transfer of carbon (which began as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) to the soil, where it can be stable for a very long time. In other words, biochar may present a way for us to start taking back some of the carbon that humans have poured into the atmosphere.

Biochar: a potential tool in the battle against climate change

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

Caesarea en route from Tel Aviv to Zichron Ya'acov. Photo courtesy Israel Tourism and Creative Commons.

The drive north on the road from Tel Aviv to Zichron Ya’acov has not changed in decades: the Mediterranean sun still shines down as you pass rows of flowering banana trees swaying seductively in the breeze, and fish farms sparkle with dancing denise—sea bream—luring passersby to fish for their supper. The vivid blue sea spreads out lazily alongside you. Just past the Roman bastion of Caesarea you turn off the main road to climb the Carmel Mountains toward Zichron Ya’acov. (Mountains? It is really just one high hill, down which a white hotel cascades toward the water.) Once the city of Zichron was still basically sand dunes. Today, its main pedestrian street is busy with strolling tourists and locals, visiting sweet cafés and galleries.

Fish farms sparkle with dancing denise—sea bream—luring passersby to fish for their supper.

Israel is a place where the old is in a state of constant interface with the new. Zichron Ya’acov is the home of the First Aliyah Museum, which outlines the story of the first wave of immigrants to what was then known as Palestine. Although Zichron Ya’acov retains echoes of its 1880s spirit—the simple, sturdy buildings, the towns, people purposeful in their activities—things are transforming in important ways. 

First Aliyah Museum >

The Stunning Drive from Tel Aviv to Zichron Ya’acov

Kibbutz Degania courtesy Israel Tourism and Creative Commons.

Israel’s cultural psyche is deeply grounded in the idea of group endeavors. The country’s pioneering founders, steeped in socialist ideals, created collectives known as kibbutzim and moshavim, whose communal efforts in agriculture and industry helped build the nation.

Israel’s cultural psyche is deeply grounded in the idea of group endeavors

The kibbutz is a collectively owned and run community where responsibilities and benefits are shared by all members. The traditional moshav is a different model of communal system: a collective of individually owned farms, benefitting from economies of scale through shared equipment and services. Even as the kibbutzim and moshavim have adopted new structures and strategies to survive, most of the nation’s agricultural ventures and successes are still their domain.

Kibbutzim and Moshavim: Two Models of Communal Living

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

Kayoumi vineyard in the Galilee. Photo courtesy Carmel Winery

For many years, Israeli vintners complied with halakha—Jewish laws—and ensured that their wines were kosher by heating or even boiling them. This process inevitably impaired the quality of the finished product, and kosher wine was generally known as a sweet and inferior gastronomic product. Yet as Israeli winemakers began to aim toward producing higher-quality wines, the modern Israeli wine industry found ways to meet kashrut requirements (that is, the Jewish dietary regulations) without ruining the wine. Winemakers no longer boil their wines; instead many of them bring in authorized supervisors whose role is to oversee the production and handling process. So today’s Israeli wines can be both kosher and pleasing to the most discerning palate.

 

 

Keeping Wine Kosher

An outdoor class at Nitzana Educational Center. Photo by and © 2016 Vision Studio

David Palmach, Nitzana Educational Center’s director, has an intense, tigerlike presence; you can immediately feel that this is a man with a vision, fully ready to enact Lova Eliav’s concept of Nitzana as “a school to teach respect for humanity and its place in developing the arid wilderness.”  

There are Christians, Muslims, and pagans here. We are open for them. They should feel like what they are, where they come from. I don’t want to convert them. That’s not the idea. To be a human being—that’s the main idea.
— David Palmach, Director, Nitzana

At the Nitzana Educational Center’s Solar Park complex, young children are taught the concepts of living well and sustainably. The school’s huge swimming pool, heated by solar panels, is bright blue and inviting. One of the outdoor classrooms has a rather unusual feature: the chairs are elegant, purple-lidded toilet seats—something visiting children are likely to remember for a long time! (This, of course, is the class that deals with wastewater and solutions to the world’s water crisis.)

Classroom “seats” for Nitzana’s course in water usage. Photo copyright © and courtesy Cookie West 

Nitzana’s handsome recycling center is nearby, with benches surrounding an inspiring wall of art made from recycled bottles, plastics, and other strangely gorgeous detritus. A very tangible lesson takes the form of a wall covered with two hundred empty liter-bottles. David explains: “I ask the kids, ‘How much water do you or your mom or dad use in one day?’ They have no idea. ‘About two hundred liters,’ I tell them. ‘And how much is that? Look how many bottles. That’s two hundred liters.’ . . . You get the idea. We try to open the box, to let them think outside it.”

While an important part of Nitzana’s mission is about exploring environmental issues through the lens of Jewish values, the team here is keenly aware of their non-Jewish neighbors and strives for peace with them. David tells us:

What’s the saying from the Bible? “Better a neighbor who is nearby than a brother who is far away.” That’s our situation here. We don’t bring non-Jews here and try to teach them Zionism and the Bible. We teach them about solar energy, science, sports—how to make a step into the near future and the far future as our neighbors. If you want to serve the Negev, help the neighbors. There are Christians, Muslims, and even pagans. We are open for them. They should feel like what they are, where they come from. I don’t want to convert them. That’s not the idea. To be a human being—that’s the main idea.

There is an overlook at Nitzana from which you can see the border with Egypt. Tracing the route outward is artist Dani Karavan’s stunning site work known as Way of Peace: a hundred sand-colored columns lined up along two miles of the desert. Each column is carved with the word peace in a different language.

Nitzana >

David Palmach, the Dynamic Director of Nitzana Educational Center

Nitzana Educational Center. Photo by and © 2016 Vision Studio

Near the Egyptian border is the educational “eco-village” of Nitzana. Founded in 1986 by the late Arie “Lova” Eliav—a longtime member of Israel’s Knesset and recipient of both the Israel Prize and the Ben-Gurion Prize—Nitzana is an extraordinary center for young people that is all about building environmental awareness, self-confidence, and tolerance for others.

The facility is administered by the Jewish Agency and the Ramat Negev Regional Council, and is largely run as a kind of “field school,” with outdoor classes. Among its programs is a service-learning course in leadership skills for recent high-school graduates before they enter their military service. 

There is the Nitzana Solar Park, which features instructional installations about renewable energy and recycling; thousands of schoolchildren visit here each year. There are weeklong “Negev Seminars” for Israeli kids, and yearlong Hebrew-language classes for foreign students. There is also a boarding school (run in partnership with Israel’s Ministry of Education) for young refugees who have made their way from Eritrea and South Sudan, many of them having experienced horrific trauma—war, famine, torture—before arriving here. Orphans are taught English, math, computer skills: all they need to grow up prepared to take care of themselves in the world. And Nitzana’s Youth Empowerment Center helps young people who have suffered from illness or disease or trauma to cope with their problems so that they can get back to normal life.

Nitzana is located near the ruins of an ancient Nabataean site—a trading-post settlement on the old route between Eilat and Gaza. The school’s archaeological museum houses fascinating artifacts found in the area.

Nitzana is an extraordinary center for young people that is all about building environmental awareness, self-confidence, and tolerance for others.

Nitzana >


Nitzana: An Ecological Field School in the Negev

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, Makhtesh Ramon, Sunset, 2012.  Photo by Neil Folberg

Makhtesh Ramon is a fantastically beautiful geological site close to Sde Boker. Driving down into the basin of the makhtesh—a deep crater—is a hair-raising but exhilarating trip on a rocky path that makes the rollercoasters at Coney Island seem tame. The makhtesh is twenty-five miles long and six miles wide—there is so much to explore.

The walls of the Makhtesh are striped with limestone and basalt, red as roses, tall as buildings. Tame Nubian ibexes and gazelles wander fearlessly.

The walls of the makhtesh are striped with limestone and basalt, red as roses, tall as buildings. Tame Nubian ibexes and gazelles wander fearlessly. Acacia, boxthorn, and broom grow in abundance, and sturdy caper bushes, with their warm-green leaves as delicate as tiny coins, sneak out of crevices, some of them growing sideways.

It is a landscape unlike any other on Earth.

Ramon Crater >

Makhtesh Ramon: An Awesome Geological Form

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.

PHOTOGRAPHS BY NEIL FOLBERG CAPTURING ISRAEL'S LANDSCAPE

The Inspiring Landscapes of the Negev Desert

Vintner Adam Montefiore. Photo courtesy Adam Montefiore.

For a long time, Israeli wines were destined chiefly for sacramental purposes: they were produced in mass quantities and sold in supermarkets. There was little impetus to compete with wine producers outside of Israel. For many decades, just surviving was challenge enough.

If you compare where we were twenty years ago, and you think where we might be in twenty years’ time, it’s an absolute revolution that’s happening.”
— Adam Montefiore

Today, Israel’s wines can stand up to some of the great European vintages. What brought about this radical transformation?

Adam Montefiore was a chief instrument in the change. An English transplant to Israel, Adam has overseen turnarounds at the Golan Heights Winery and the Carmel Winery, both of which have won major awards in international wine competitions. As he says:

If you compare where we were twenty years ago, and you think where we might be in twenty years’ time, it’s an absolute revolution that’s happening. There’s not one winery in Israel that’s not making better wine than it did ten years ago.

Adam comes from a venerable family of wine lovers. One ancestor was the nineteenth-century British financier and philanthropist Moses Montefiore. According to Adam, Sir Moses drank a bottle of wine every day (and, perhaps not incidentally, lived to the age of a hundred). Adam concludes that his own passion for wine comes to him naturally, through his genes. That family passion continues in the form of the Kerem Montefiore Winery, which is run by Adam’s children, David and Rachel.

Today Adam writes about wine and heads several oenological consortia in Israel—he continues to earn his title: the ambassador of Israeli wine.