Let’s get serious about agriculture

The other day, dotted around my mixed salad, I enjoyed both the sight and the taste of those small sweet cherry tomatoes, and I was reminded of seeing them grow at a research farm in Israel’s Negev desert during my visit there early this year.

Driving south along the perfectly smooth road through the Negev the landscape indeed became distinctly desert-like, with signs warning us to beware of camels crossing the road. At the research centre we first watched a film about the activities there. We saw the farmers and their families in action, how they had left everything behind to risk it all in this arid area, and how, supported by expert mentors, they had struggled to learn the tricks of the trade and to harvest their first cherry tomatoes.

New varieties of cherry tomatoes were developed in Israel 40 years ago, where the celebrated drip irrigation system was also dreamed up, and next we were taken by our guide, Gadi Grinblat, to see a plastic-covered field of the tiny tomatoes. Gadi was a great story-teller, explaining how over the last twenty years the researchers there have been seeking ways of continuously improving the crop and how it is cultivated.

Whether it is tomatoes (8,000 tons a year come from this area), or grapes for wine (150,000 bottles a year are filled in the Negev), or peppers or cucumbers or olives or cotton, the central question was how to grow them in sand, in which normally absolutely nothing survives as it is completely incapable of holding water.

Here though it’s different. The tomato plants use 95% of the water dripped onto their roots, each one receiving an identical amount. And with no water anywhere else there’s no incentive for insects or weeds to flourish. Gadi listed the three, soon four, possible sources of water: piped from the Sea of Galilee 300 kilometres to the north, which until twenty years ago was the only option; desalinated water from the Mediterranean, 100 kilometres away; in a year from now, through recycled water from the army camp being constructed 15 kilometres away; or from the brackish salty water 900 metres below them. All but the last alternative cost lots of money to supply, but it was far from obvious that the local water would allow the plants to grow.

That’s what much of the research has been all about, and the good news is that, alternating with some sweet water (all computer-controlled) tomatoes and melons largely fed on brackish water are actually sweeter. Gadi enthusiastically explained how they use bees to pollinate the plants; how they hang the stems from above to take up less land and allow the crops to be more accessible; and how they experiment with different shapes and colours, and for the cherry tomatoes, different arrangements on the stems.

‘Here we can play, as we don’t grow to sell and survive,’ he said. For their mission is to improve the livelihoods of farmers in Israel and elsewhere, by offering the results of their learning to others. Gadi then took us to see grapes on the vine, tickled into growing out of season through increasing the temperature ten degrees by placing a plastic cover over them in winter, thereby enabling two harvesting seasons a year. And he showed us their truffle mushrooms, the most expensive in the world (in New York they go for $1,000 a kilo). The cost of these mushrooms is partly so high because they don’t grow under every plant, and you don’t know which ones will deliver the goods and which ones won’t – until the researchers here will have scratched their heads over the problem some more.

Do we have researchers scratching their heads like this in Kenya? We do. Do agricultural research institutions exist here? Yes again, both local and international, and they do great work. Our challenge is not really the quality of the research itself but the dissemination of its consequences. This is not something that happens automatically. Serious budgets must be allocated, including for the marketing as well as for the technical expertise required. Not least for helping our farmers to be bold enough to consider new approaches.

There is so much scope for ramping up our agricultural productivity, whether through planting better quality seeds or appropriate application of fertilizer, whether through irrigation or post-harvest storage, or through other means of moving beyond mere subsistence levels. (Don’t even get me going on reversing land fragmentation.)

Yet we know farmers, here as in most parts of the world, are renowned for their conservative attitudes and their skepticism regarding change. “We tried it before and it failed,” we hear too often, or simply “we lack the resources”. Added to this is the high average age of our farmers, although more recently a few Young Turks have been entering what has been until recently the most unglamorous of occupations.

We celebrate the new energy and knowledge about farming being spread through our Saturday papers; we cheer on those doing good work in research; we applaud the young (and some not so young) Kenyans finding new ways of farming; and we encourage the emerging emphasis on irrigation. Of course too we gasp at the performance of the horticulture sub-sector (which has been much assisted by Israelis). Now we need to bring all this together and transform our thinking on what farming is and how it can deliver so much more than it has been doing.

When I was in Israel the Galilee International Management Institute signed an MOU with Vihiga Governor Moses Akaranga to work together to double the county’s agricultural output in two years. And if in Vihiga, why not elsewhere in Kenya? Come on, young Kenyans, grasp the opportunity, as you have done in IT and in other fields. And come on, Kenyan universities, emulate the folk from Galilee. We can do much more, and there’s no better way than by emulating those curious and determined Israelis.

mike.eldon@depotkenya.org