Until recently, Ganit Sheter Bar-Yehoshua's agricultural knowledge – in normal times director of marketing and business development – was more or less limited to the ability to distinguish between mint and verbena.
Sheter Bar-Yehoshua, 43, a married mother of three daughters, one of them a baby, describes a great difficulty she and her family endured at the beginning of the war, which led them to flee to Cyprus for two weeks. But being there not only brought her no rest, but quite the opposite. "I woke up every morning in front of the sea," she recalls, "and asked myself what I was doing here. I was always glued to the news, but from a distance you can't do anything."
About a week after they returned to Israel, together with some co-workers, she decided to volunteer to pick apples at Kibbutz Ortal in the Golan Heights. She describes the six-hour experience: "It was really meditative. The repetitive act of climbing the ladder, picking apples and placing them in a basket, walking to the container, and again and again - was a kind of meditation for me. We were eight people picking 4.5 tons of apples. For six hours we didn't talk about the war, laughing and telling jokes. Then we stopped to eat on Route 90. And like us, there were lots of other volunteers, so it was very powerful."
And wouldn't you feel the same way about cooking food for soldiers, or finding apartments for evacuees?
"At first I really packed boxes, but it wasn't the same. The day I picked I really had a sense of levitation."
Bar Yehoshua. "Want to come back once every two weeks", photo: private collection
About a week later, Ganit began volunteering in a project of the "Rish Lakish" olive press in Zippori. This time she did not pick, but sorted vegetables and fruits.
And here was no longer the levitation of the harvest?
"True, but there was a kind of closure in it. There is something about this contact with vegetables. At first I worked with gloves, later I took them off because I wanted to touch the vegetables with my hands. It was a good feeling to know that if it weren't for this work we were doing, everything would have been thrown away. I'm not saying I'm going to quit my job now and go farming, but something about that experience made me want to bring it into my life, once every two weeks."
When the drizzle turned into a flood
Ganit is not the only one. Like her, tens of thousands more people came in droves to help farmers, who faced a severe shortage of workers after October 7. Israeli agriculture is based on Thai labor, and after what happened, the Thais returned en masse to their country. And not only in the envelope area, where about 70% of Israel's vegetables are grown, but throughout the country.
Calls to help farmers, who are at best left with a third or a quarter of their workforce, began trickling down social media but quickly turned into a surge. This is also true of other types of volunteering, which were urgently needed in the first two weeks of the war – but unlike them, agriculture still has a great need for working hands.
Beyond that, it seems that agricultural volunteering has become a kind of fashion. It's hard to find anyone who volunteered in orchards or fields and didn't rush to tell the guys on social media, mainly by posting pictures or videos of him on the picking ladder, standing tanned in the scorching sun or riding a tractor.
"From today," director and screenwriter Eyal Halfon declared on his Facebook page, "I am the center of the avocado industry." At the end of the post, Halfon admitted that this is not really happening, but only a fantasy. Attorney Ilan Sofer, a daily commercial lawyer, uploaded photos of himself from several volunteer events at the harvest, until he finally replaced his profile picture with one from his work as a farmer, carrying a large tin over his shoulder.
Halfon. Happiness in the avocado orchard, photo: from Facebook
"Volunteering in agriculture is considered a 'patrol' of volunteering," explains Ofer Padan, owner and CEO of Marathon Israel, a concept events company in the field of sports, which has enlisted in the volunteer activities of its community of runners. Paden found himself at the beginning of the war with several events planned for the coming months, all of which were cancelled due to the war, and he soon converted to a war room of various volunteer jobs.
"The demand for volunteering in agriculture was the highest," says Padan. "It's considered elitist and sexy," he laughs. He, too, talks about the sense of elation among the volunteers in agriculture. "There were those who said it was really contagious, that they felt it was Zionism, that their contribution was equal to the fighting in Gaza. This passion for agriculture is very strong."
The beneficiaries of this trend are farmers. On a daily basis – let's face it – they are as interesting to the public as garlic peel. "The public sees the farmer as a parasite," says Raviv Nissim, a farmer and large farm owner in Moshav Ahituv in Emek Hefer. Nissim has hired hundreds of volunteers in recent weeks, and he believes the encounter with agriculture has helped change attitudes, at least for some.
Raviv Nissim. "The volunteers asked me: When are you going to sleep?", Photo: Lior Nissim
"When they saw all the work around the harvest – making a plot, wrapping – they realized that being a farmer is much more than just picking. In the first few days, they also encountered a heat wave, and within two hours they asked to leave the greenhouse for an hour's break. They asked me how we could work under such conditions. I explained to them that now we are still in winter, and that they should try to come in July and August and see how the parasite lives his life."
In Raviv Nissim's greenhouse. Guiding the volunteers before starting the work, photo: Lior Nissim
Understand the prices
With all due respect to the euphoria and the closeness of hearts, it now remains to be seen whether the farmers will be able to leverage the momentum, or whether the whole event will be just a fad. As Tom Cook, an advertiser and owner of Bright Strategy & Marketing who volunteered for farming in the first week after Oct. 7, says: "I don't believe there will be any change. The farmers will remain farmers, the same hard-necked people, the state will continue to treat them the same. Only we, the volunteers, will be left with a sweet memory."
"I think that through enlisting in agriculture, people express their longing for simplicity and basic things," says Shlomit Yahav, a daily financial planner who answered the call and formed a volunteer war room in agriculture.
"What has happened now thanks to this," she explains, "is our connection to Israeli products. Over the years we have distanced ourselves from it, the stage has been taken by high-tech. We became brainmakers, while subjects like agriculture and others were neglected. We turned it into a kind of pleasure, to go to the picking from time to time, but now we are rediscovering Israeli produce and embracing it, because we understand the meanings. This allows us to understand that the strength of an economy is not measured only by high-tech."
Cook. Arrived in the first week, photo: private collection
While working in the fields and orchards, and talking to the farmers, the volunteers also discover that out of the price the public pays for vegetables and fruits to the farmer, very little remains, while the main thing goes to middlemen and marketing chains. The volunteers who came to volunteer at Nissim's farm in Ahituv underwent a kind of education series with him. "Among the volunteers there were also those who understand the need to preserve Israeli agriculture," he says, "but quite a few also came who thought it was possible to exist without farmers, because there are imports."
Until the war, Nissim employed 60 Thais, of whom 17 remained. Of those, four more realized that because of the high demand, there was no maximum price for their labor, and went to work on another farm that paid them more.
"I explained to the volunteers," Nissim says, "that whatever they didn't finish that day, I would continue in the evening, so they told me: 'But you've been working since morning, you're finished, bro, when are you going to bed?' I said that at night I was waiting until morning to see the land. Most farmers live Friday-Saturday: from Friday noon to Saturday night, when they are already preparing for Sunday. And anyway, even on Saturday at 6 a.m. I go to the land, we don't really have Shabbat."
Nissim told them about the farmer's dependence on what is out of his control - so there can be a successful season, followed by two bad ones. "At the end of the conversation," he says, "people told me: 'We wouldn't take turns with you even for a day.' They understood that there had to be Israeli agriculture so that we wouldn't be dependent on other countries, and also to guard the country's borders."
A symbol of Zionism and values
"As far as I'm concerned, I'm as close to God as there is," says Shimon Malul, a fruit grower from Moshav Shaal in the Golan, about his work as a farmer. He, to his delight, manages to meet his tasks and duties, and is not harmed, but he does not represent.
"Agriculture is one of the industries that has been crushed over the years. There is something about agriculture that goes beyond the supply of produce. It has a connection to the land, it goes beyond growing Pink Lady apples. If all the communities engaged in agriculture did not do this, they simply would not exist. Their essence is agriculture. There is a connection between land and Zionism and values, and people were exposed to this when they came to volunteer with the farmers."
Do you think you'll be able to leverage that?
"99 percent of the people are excellent people, but we have a leadership that lives in a bubble. We took bad managers to manage us. The little citizen wears out the wheels of routine and becomes indifferent. We will remain farmers."
Dana Yoskovitz, CEO of Tov HaSade, the organization for organic agriculture in Israel, believes there is potential to leverage the difficult event we are experiencing of a shortage of working hands in Israeli agriculture.
"Most of the public is now exposed for the first time to the agricultural sector, and thus understands the importance of continuing to maintain local agriculture and the danger it currently faces. People live under the illusion that it will always be possible to import agricultural produce, and do not understand that this is not just another industry in which one can choose whether to invest or not. It's the land, the food, the most basic things in our lives. Food security and security at our borders is not something that can be imported.
"We are familiar with wars and crises, and are used to talking about something else five minutes after the war. In this case, the agricultural crisis must not disappear from public discourse. We need active actions by the government that will promote agriculture and see it once again as a central part of the Israeli enterprise. This momentum must be used to grow good things such as investment in mechanization, encouragement of Israeli workers, incentives to market and buy Israeli produce, and a policy of supporting local agriculture over imports. This cannot happen without the Ministry of Agriculture and the allocation of budgets and manpower."
Do you believe anything will change?
"An economy doesn't change in one day. There is a reason why there are a lot of foreign workers in Israel and there is a need for a lot of working hands. There is now an opportunity to turn attention also to the long-term improvement of means of production, mechanization and manpower savings. This is an opportunity to encourage Israeli workers to work in agriculture, to use the momentum generated by volunteering.
"You do see demand from the workers' side. At the moment, unfortunately, from the farmers' side, we don't see them jumping at the opportunity to employ Israelis. Some economies just aren't built for that. You can't replace foreign workers with Israelis in one day and expect the economy to continue functioning normally. At the moment, the existing government incentive is for the workers themselves, and we see a need for incentives for the farmers themselves, which will be flexible and adapted to the various industries and out of an understanding of the complexity of replacing a foreign worker in Israel."
What will decide?
"We all want to live according to ideology, go to the supermarket and buy local produce. We mistakenly think that we live in a free market, but government decisions have a great impact on the price gaps between imported and local produce. There are economic ways so that the price gap (between the price of local produce and the price of imports) will be smaller. You have to want to promote this agenda and believe that this is the right path for our country. To create an economic envelope that will support this. But as always, not everything is in the hands of the government. As consumers, if we understand that there is a war here over local production, we will think twice about where we put our shekel."
"The presence of many citizens in agricultural areas exposed them to the farmers' difficulties, and made them understand how important the state's ability to provide decomposition and vegetables for itself is," says Amit Yifrah, chairman of the Farmers' Association. "Beyond that, they saw how spread agriculture was. After all, on that terrible day, the agricultural settlements were at the front. But it's not enough for the public to applaud. We need the state to protest as well."
What should she do?
"To give the right tools: eliminating the quota for foreign workers, competitive water prices and a controlled import policy – then agriculture will know how to produce in surplus. The state should regulate the market, not crush it. If it gives farmers priority over imports, the farmer will know how to make a decent living and will know that he has the ability to invest in the farm."
What has happened so far?
"The previous agriculture minister was hostile to agriculture, with a complete lack of understanding (referring to MK Oded Forer, who was agriculture minister in the previous government and led a reform that aroused widespread opposition, H.M.). Avi Dichter, from the moment he became agriculture minister, connected to the content, understood the meaning and tried to produce tools."
Connect with farmers and the land
Ministry of Agriculture Director General Oren Lavi certainly intends to pick up the gauntlet. Since the war began, he has come to volunteer, and several times he took ministry workers with him and urged other government ministries to help farmers with working hands.
"The event we went through is traumatic for society," he says, "People took it hard and found peace in a place that is neutral, free of politics. They connected with farmers, who are people connected to the land, simple and popular, and learned to appreciate them."
And suddenly they discovered that a farmer is not just a new 4x4 vehicle, but a lot of black work around the clock, and in the end barely make ends meet?
"It's very difficult to do agriculture here. Farmers' opening figures are very low. In Turkey, where 60 percent of imports come from, farmers don't pay for water, workers cost $200-100 a month, and there's no land problem. In Israel, there is no fair game for the farmer, and his starting point is completely different. But a tomato we buy from Turkey for a shekel and a half is not like an Israeli tomato. The Israeli farmer is a growth engine: he creates an economy, pays 15 sub-suppliers – nylon, plastic, wood, cardboard, fertilizer, seeds. When we encourage imports at the expense of local produce, we hurt the economy."
You are a representative of the government. What do you suggest?
"It would be good if the relevant officials went out into the field to hear the farmers, see what working conditions they were working under and understand their plight. If we do not encourage farmers by reducing the production factors of land and foreign workers and removing barriers on the one hand, and on the other hand giving them a safety net through the return of import tariffs, in the medium and long term we will lose their trust, their personal security and the country's food security. If we give up on farmers, we will lose one of our most important values."
Indeed, the Ministry of Agriculture recently launched a campaign to attract Israelis to agriculture by providing grants of NIS 3,000 a month to respondents for three months. According to Lavi, there are already thousands of requests from Israelis who want to join, with thousands of farmers who need workers. It is clear to him that this is a long process, and that in any case the number of Israelis who will join will not reach the number of Thais employed, but he says, "If we manage to retain these workers, it will be the very end of days."
But there are also those who doubt the ability to carry out this plan. Oren Rodman, a cherry tomato grower near Gaza, says employing Israelis is not a solution that will work. "Farmers' profit margins are very low, inputs are rising and margins are shrinking. In order to replace a team of six Thais, I need 20 Israelis and provide them with housing. Israelis cannot live in the living conditions of the Thais. You need a lot of experience and physical fitness. So in theory that's great, but it won't work. This is not a job suitable for Israelis. Thais are used to farming, it's in their DNA."
"There was a moment of elation, of Zionist renewal," adds former MK and former secretary general of the Farmers' Association Avshalom (Abu) Whelan, "but in the end, all Israeli governments over the past 15 years have not paid attention to agriculture. The entire Zionist concept was put to the test of maturation here. It's important that we grow up to the border, because wherever we work the land, we won't be. In the short term, I'm optimistic. Suddenly people are returning to their roots, realizing the importance of food security as opposed to the government narrative, according to which all that matters is the cost of living, and local production is meaningless. Tell you that this enthusiasm will hold water? I'm not sure."
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