Climbing from the coast to the Galilee region avocado orchards are common around Karmi’el and many olives are grown. These are Syrian olives, tough trees which produce good oil with bitter/strong fruit. In the plains north of the Sea of Galilee chickpeas are the main crop, however cranes love to eat them! The cranes are such a tourist attraction that they are encouraged, and farmers compensated for their losses. The hillslopes east of the Sea of Galilee grow almonds and olive groves and new, densely planted olive groves are in place, indicating buoyancy in Israel’s agricultural industry. On the hillslopes and valleys below Mount Gilboa acres of almonds are grown; immaculate rows of perfect trees which were in full flower of palest pink and white blooms during our visit. We later learnt these trees are sprayed with hormone to induce staggered flowering. Strategically placed bee hives ensure pollination. The valley areas and terraced hillsides on Mount Meron’s south-western slopes also support vines, olives and almonds, whilst the south-eastern slopes (near Safed) grow apricots and peaches. The hillslopes around Jerusalem were terraced and growing olives.
On Mount Carmel vines were growing outside, and have been nurtured here for over 5000 years. We saw dormant vines throughout Israel’s northern region, especially on the mountain slopes (and sometimes under cover in the valleys). In the coolest region of Israel, around Mount Hermon and towards the Syrian border, orchards of temperate top fruit are grown, apples, pears and cherries, along with Mediterranean fruits, pomegranates, nectarines, citrus, almonds, olives and pecan nuts. This is the most southerly extent for growing crops such as cherries, and the apples are renowned. As each crop flowers it must be a beautiful sight, and the nectarines were flowering when we visited. Reservoirs provide water for irrigating these trees, but supplies dry up in the summer.
The tumble-down stone walls across the Golan Heights suggest multi-generations of farming, but now, with a recent history of conflict and the land littered with land mines and inaccessible, very few crops are grown and cattle are kept inside barns.
In complete contrast, at 212m below sea level, the Sea of Galilee has subtropical conditions and reaches 45°C in the summer. Plants here were visibly further ahead than areas at higher altitude. Many acres are covered in plastic and irrigated to grow food. Banana fruit were bagged to protect the developing fruit from pests and disease. Mango and lychee orchards reflect the warmer conditions, with some brand-new plantings of closely spaced mango. The upper Jordan Valley is Israel’s most prominent growing area. This big, flat, fertile valley has a ready supply of water and is covered with well-maintained polytunnels and plastic, growing a whole host of crops including winter vegetables. Plantations include citrus, olives and dates.
Although temperatures here reach 45°C in the summer, winters are too cool for Medjool dates. Little natural vegetation remains here and the date palm plantations appear devoid of other life, just like tropical oil-palm plantations we hear so much about. Further south, irrigation of the Jordan valley in the Samarian desert supports crops such as chickpeas, citrus, dates and bananas under cover. Here we witnessed fields of wheat being foliar fed from an aeroplane! The difference in agriculture in Palestine was noticeable immediately we crossed the border, smaller scale fields and poorer quality tunnels, which grew potatoes, courgettes, vines, aubergines, brassicas, peppers and likely many other crops. In Palestine we also passed a Hippeastrum farm, growing bulbs to export to Holland, under shade netting. Here the vines, grown under shade netting, were leafing up, and as we drew closer to the Dead Sea (lower latitude and altitude) the vines were in full leaf already.
By the Dead Sea are huge numbers of dates, the vast majority being the tasty ‘Medjool’ type which need heat and whose leaves have a lovely blue tint. Date palms are either male or female and bloom here in March. To assist good pollination (by wind) and fruiting, male flower spikes are cut off and placed in female trees. Male pollen is also collected and refrigerated till required, to puff directly onto the female flowers. Farmers can even, at a cost, buy pollen to use this way. Trees are productive for about 50-60 years and new plants are propagated slowly by air layering suckers. Even the soil exposed around the Dead Sea is used for growing vegetables, by firstly running fresh water through to leach out salts. Interestingly, the cherry tomatoes grown here are sweeter, due to the salty irrigation water. Even in the desert, enterprising Israelis grow crops, including prickly-pear and jojoba, and even vines in the upper Negev desert.