Some farmers are forgoing their harvesting due to a decrease in demand coupled with high production costs, creating a huge amount of waste
The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on the global economy, with no country insulated from the fallout. While the extent of the devastation could take months to fully materialize – and years to digest and overcome – the impact on certain sectors is already more apparent than on others.
In Israel, the farming industry has taken an enormous hit, with some mass growers altogether forgoing harvesting their crops due to low demand and high production costs.
In a country where a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, the amount of food being wasted is both tragic and difficult to comprehend.
At the family-owned Hajaj Farm, located adjacent to the southern Israeli village of Gilat, there are fruits and vegetables for as far as the eye can see. But they are no longer destined for supermarket shelves or restaurants; rather, they will end up in the trash.
“To grow a kilo of tomatoes costs 3 shekels, but in the last period, we only got 1.5 to 2 shekels. It is not because the product is not nice or fresh – it’s that demand is very low and supply is high,” Adir Hajaj, a third-generation farmer told The Media Line during a tour of the premises.
“Here, we have 20 acres full, full of artichokes. Plus, there are two other similar plots. About 10 tons in total. And we’re simply going to throw it out,” he said.
The price tag: An estimated $50,000 worth of garbage.
And just for the artichokes.
This, on a farm that produces a multitude of different crops.
In fact, it is an across-the-field problem – one seemingly amplified by an influx of cheap imports from countries with lower labor costs.
According to Hajaj, foreign workers in Israel earn a daily salary of a few hundred shekels (about $100), which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to compete under the circumstances with other countries, where, by comparison, laborers might earn as little as a couple of dollars each day.
Additionally, overhead is high, with the cost of the water alone to have grown the artichokes running into the tens of thousands of dollars. The price of fuel and electricity in Israel is likewise exorbitant.
Nevertheless, the owners of Hajaj Farm have, to date, retained their entire staff and even hired unemployed people from the surrounding community to begin making direct-to-home deliveries, which have become a way of life under quarantine.
Indeed, with various restrictions on movement likely to remain in place for months, many Israelis are keeping it local, which has, somewhat paradoxically, translated into a boon for some smaller-scale and niche growers.
This applies to Havivian Farm, which grows organic goods sold at either its outdoor market on the outskirts of the city of Beit Shemesh or another outlet in Jerusalem that was closed due to coronavirus restrictions.
“People would like to get more and more deliveries now, and I think they also understand the importance of buying directly from the farmer,” Michal Havivian, co-owner along with her husband of the farm, which they jointly started 12 years ago.
“The health issue is more significant now and individuals want their food to be cleaner and fresher,” she emphasized.
The same goes for Shaar Hagan Farm, located in the small town of Orot. Daily deliveries to Tel Aviv, for example, have skyrocketed to about 200.
“The coronavirus has had a positive impact on our business as more individuals are making orders,” Shaar Hagan founder Dave Elizar told The Media Line. “We don’t have a physical store on-site so everything is done through the internet.
“We have subscribers that have been receiving vegetables every week for seven years,” he continued, “and now we have many extra customers so everything is in high gear.”
As Israeli officials move to gradually reopen the economy, the mass production of basic food staples will undoubtedly be required.
“I believe that Israeli agriculture will actually prosper out of this crisis,” Agriculture Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said at the beginning of the outbreak in March. “We will need to organize together with all growers and importers to maintain supply continuity and food security for the entire population, even if the disease spreads.
“Israeli agriculture will grow,” he contended, “because the more we meet the goals we set for ourselves, the more its vitality and capabilities will no longer be questioned.”
However, the current situation may be unsustainable over the long term.
Despite Jerusalem having greenlighted a $25 billion bailout package for companies in dire straits, only a fraction of the funds has reportedly been disbursed. This has led to an outpouring of anger and organized protests in some parts of the country.
Though the government insists that there will be no food shortages – with the exception of various nonessential products – without help from the state, the future of some farms is in doubt.
“We have been operating for 50 years and it’s a day-to-day struggle,” Adir Hajaj told The Media Line. “You don’t know what will be and now, with the coronavirus, there is even more uncertainty.
“If things continue like this,” he stressed, “and the government does not help us reduce production costs, the situation will be very bad. In the end, there won’t be food.”
Perhaps, then, the magnitude of the coronavirus shutdown will become apparent – at the dinner table.