By Steve Kramer:
As you know, Israel is a very small country in area, roughly the size of New Jersey, with a similar long, narrow shape. Recently Michal and I went on a tour with the ESRA group (English Speaking Residents Association) to a northern part of the Negev Desert in Israel’s south.
Our destination was Talmei Yosef, a moshav located about 65 miles south of Tel Aviv. Talmei Yosef, in English ‘Joseph’s Furrows’, was named after a former director of the Land and Afforestation Department of the Jewish National Fund, Yosef Weitz. It was founded and developed in the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel had conquered in the 1967 Six Day War against Egypt (and other Arab countries). But in 1979, three years after a peace treaty was agreed upon between Egypt and Israel, the moshav was uprooted and then reestablished in Israel’s Negev Desert, very close to the Egyptian border and the Gaza Strip.
What brought us to Talmei Yosef was an attraction – the Salad Trail. In 2004 Uri Alon opened his educational farm. This was the main attraction of our tour, which was roughly a one and a half hour bus ride from Israel’s center. We expected to see how Israel’s famous agricultural technologies allow many crops to grow in the desert soil and also hydroponically or above ground. We weren’t disappointed.
The Salad Trail is a unique touch-and-taste farm where you can pick your own produce, enjoy a complete sensual experience, and learn about Israeli agriculture. Alon says, “If you want to see how real vegetables grow, and taste the best vegetables in the world, that’s reason enough to come visit.”
As a youth, Alon had dreams of being a farmer. It suited him perfectly to become a pioneer in the Sinai and subsequently the northern Negev. “This is the only farm with a professional tour,” he says. “It’s not only about coming here to pick vegetables but also to understand how they grow, learn about the environment and understand the agricultural innovations and technologies.” On our tour we also learned about shmita, the biblical requirement to rest the land every seven years. Not surprisingly, many ways have been found to ease the requirements of shmita. For example, Alon raises all his crops not in the ground, but on the ground in pots or planters suspended in the air.
Up until the current pandemic era, the Salad Trail would host busloads of visitors, like ours. Its main audience had been the very successful Birthright experience, which would send multiple busses daily to the farm, where the young visitors to Israel could roam the fields, pick, touch, taste, and learn about the fruits and vegetables they eat. Lately, he is more likely to have one bus load a day and some carloads of Israelis touring on their own. Alon hopes that once the pandemic abates, the entire area will be revitalized and Salad Trail will again host corporate events, family tours, bar mitzvahs, and school outings.
Like most farmers in Israel, Alon became an expert in strategies developed to mitigate the arid climate. He touts Israeli innovations including recycled water and irrigation technologies as key to his success in growing 80 different crops on his desert land, including more than a dozen varieties of cherry tomatoes, seven varieties of mint, edible flowers, four colors of carrots, two types of chili, two types of strawberries, three types of cucumbers, three kinds of radishes, more than 30 herbs, and more. We were encouraged to touch, smell, and taste the herbs grown on the farm, including medicinal varieties.
Alon has a very congenial way about him and cultivates an engaging rapport with his visitors, humorous while educational. He even employs recorded songs to enhance his presentation. His very smart and athletic border collie amused us with wonderful and amusing tricks. Alon also raises carrier pigeons, or homing pigeons, which are bred and trained for their navigational skills. When released from their cages, they soar up and provide a wonderful photo op for visitors.
There was the option to bring your own lunch or enjoy a special meal at the farm. We chose the latter, a poike menu, either with chicken or without. It was delicious, similar to cholent – but better in my opinion.
After our very satisfying lunch and tour, we made one other stop at the nearby Isis Boutique Brewery. There, the engaging owner and a helper served us as much of several of his brews as we desired, while explaining and showing us his small operation. Though tiny by American standards, his brewery offers some tasty ales. He even distills some whiskeys, which he likens to “moonshine.” His operation serves customers from the Northern Negev up to Ashdod, one of Israel’s largest ports.
Our tour to a northern Negev farm was very enjoyable and entertaining. While Michal and I haven’t gone on many bus tours, this was a good experience and we’ll probably take advantage of more tours in the future. They are also an excellent suggestion for tourists planning a trip to Israel, who can check out attractions like this in advance on the many Israel touring websites.