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Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu , Israel

Pastoral. No other word so perfectly describes Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu.

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Sde Eliyahu

by Jonathan Danilowitz


Pastoral. No other word so perfectly describes Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu. Not that all the orchards, vineyards and fields are in ruler-straight lines; not that the gardens don't have weeds, and not that carpets of fallen leaves should have been swept up. On the contrary: this all adds to the natural, unpretentious, down-to-earth perception of kibbutz lifestyle, as it once was.


Sde Eliyah, Established nearly 70 years ago, nestles in the heart of the Beit She'an valley, one of several kibbutzim just across Israel's border with Jordan.


One of the first things you may notice at Sde Eliyahu is that almost all the men wear head coverings – as do many of the women – in the orthodox tradition. This religious kibbutz is one of the dwindling number of kibbutzim that have not been privatized in any sense of the word. Kibbutz members still meet three times a day in the communal dining hall for hearty meals, serving themselves and never forgetting to take their used utensils back to the wash-up stand. Everyone does their share, according to their ability, and everyone is equal, in the old kibbutz style.


Yet in spite of all this conventionalism, tradition and institutionalization, a closer look at Sde Eliyahu reveals an enviable modernity. It was over 40 years ago (!) that the first green buds of ecological and environmentally friendly living appeared: kibbutz member Mario Levi, with great foresight, persuaded his fellow workers that by spraying the fields with insecticides, they were causing the earth, the environment and themselves long-term harm, not to mention poisoning the harvest as well. He began growing organic grapes, pomegranates and dates and his dogged determination bore fruit (no pun intended) for future generations.


It took a while before all the kibbutz members accepted the (then) eccentric idea that crops could be successfully grown without chemical fertilizers and pesticides, in perfect harmony with nature and the environment. Today, although certain crops are still not handled according to the very strictest organic principles, the core of the kibbutz is surrounded by a 500-meter wide swathe where no chemical products have been used for years. "We live and breathe here – why on earth would we use poisons in our own back yards?" says kibbutznik Sara Goldsmith (41) emphatically. "We want to produce the best for the markets and ourselves, so we do it right – organically".


"Bio-Tour Sde Eliyahu" offers visitors an insight into this agricultural wonderland that successfully balances mankind's interaction with nature; technology with tradition. The tours were born from need: So many people wanted to learn about the unique kibbutz systems and their attitude to the environment, that the flood of requests had to be channeled into a semblance of order. The result is that you, dear reader, can also spend a fascinating day in the kibbutz atmosphere, learning about their "secrets". ( 054-5640971)


Bio tour

Let's start in the vineyard, organic of course. Our guide explains that the plastic bottles hanging at irregular intervals somehow frighten the jackals away. (Why would jackals go to a vineyard? "Just because, and they dig up the roots and cause damage.") But once the jackals stopped coming, rabbits multiplied and they in turn ripped the mesh netting around the pomegranate orchard right nearby. The netting keeps out pests that ruin the pomegranates, so the kibbutz farmers set out wooden "access tunnels" for the rabbits, so they wouldn't damage the netting.


Complicated? There's more! Strategically placed in the fields are nesting boxes to attract barn owls, buzzards and other predatory birds, to control the field mice and other rodents that harm the crops – buzzards during the day, owls at night. In the date orchards, herds of donkeys act as "mowers", keeping the ground weed-free, thus saving precious water. Nesting boxes to attract insect-eating bats are a new experiment in pest control in the orchards. The entire system – integrated pest management – relies only on nature to produce harm-free results.


Naturally, they use only organic compost, produced on the kibbutz by recycling. Nothing goes to waste. The pomegranates, for example, are sent to an outside plant to produce pomegranate juice, with its supposedly medicinal properties. The crushed seeds, together with the skins of the fruit, are returned to the kibbutz. There they extract pomegranate oil from the seeds and grind the skins into a powder, both much sought after by the cosmetic industry.


But by far the most interesting nature - science juxtaposition is the kibbutz's SIT (sterile insect technique) plant, where millions of sterile male Mediterranean fruit flies are raised. These are then released into the wild, and the result is a pesticide-free reduction in the fruit fly population. (The unfertilized females cannot produce the eggs that rot the fruit.) Israel and Jordan cooperate closely to control the Med fruit flies, and Sde Eliyahu sells sterile males across the border for release there too.


Another runaway success is the Sde Eliyahu Bio-Bee system: Swarms of bumble bees are bred in special nesting hives. These are then placed in hothouses, where the bees do what bees do best – cross-pollinate vegetable flowers to produce perfect peppers, marrows, cucumbers, tomatoes and much more. A side benefit - farmers know that poison sprays kill not only pests, but also the bees. Thus – no pesticides!


That promoted the Kibbutz's third insecticidal industry: Bio-Bee Biological Pest Control breeds a range of predatory mites, wasps, bugs and beetles that simply live off the pests that destroy fruit and vegetables, but themselves live in harmony with the produce. The predators are introduced into the hothouses or released into the fields, where survival of the fittest is the rule, and where Mother Nature's rules maintain the ecological balance between the species.


The Beit She'an Valley area has recently adopted a new name: "Valley of the Springs", in recognition of the dozens of natural springs in the environs. Beit Shean itself is a historical storybook, and the Gilboa Mountains and the valley are rife with sites to discover, explore and enjoy. Take time off from the "usual" and explore the area. Don't be afraid – the wasps and bees don't sting.



© Copyright Jonathan Danilowitz 2008.


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