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Turning sand into land. Desert farms in Israel grow lush crops from sand and salty water

IMAGINE a vast expanse of moonscape rock and sand that has been a desolate hothouse since pre-history. Here at the lowest point on Earth, 1,200 feet below sea level, with an average of 355 sunny days and barely an inch of rain each year, where daytime temperatures often exceed 120 degrees F. and nights can fall below freezing, is the Negev Desert, the southern two-thirds of Israel. And that's where Kalman Eisenmann makes a nice living growing tomatoes, peppers, and melons. ``Call me a conjurer, not a farmer,'' says Mr. Eisenmann, a pioneering member of the Neot Hakikar settlement in the Dead Sea area of the Negev. With an admiring smile, he points across the desert's sandy monochrome at the striking landscape of Neot Hakikar's rich harvest. Mirage-like, acres of colorful vegetables ripen in the hot sun. But more remarkable is that the crops are genetically engineered and irrigated with super-salty, ``brackish'' water from large aquifers beneath the Negev. Eisenmann calls it ``nudging divinity with modern science.''

From `uninhabitable,' to half-million dwellers

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Israel's dramatic greening of the Negev with brackish water is indeed a technological and biological breakthrough. It portends a revolution in the management of land and water resources in desert environments. And where once the Negev was pronounced ``uninhabitable,'' today it is home to 445,000 Jews and 55,000 Bedouins, and more than 250 thriving agricultural settlements.

The brackish water pumped from the Negev's aquifers has 20 times the salt content of drinking water. ``Desalination is too expensive, so we developed varieties of plants that soak up everything except salt,'' says Menachem Perlmutter, the architect of the Negev settlements plan. But, he adds, it took six years of ``sand storms and bad harvests before we balanced the biodynamics of water, nutrients, salt, and sun.''

At the Ramat HaNegev Experimental Agricultural Station, under a blazing blue sky, Haim Zaban, an Israeli brackish water expert, and one of the world's leading agronomists, shows off his ``desert designer crops.'' Waving a bunch of ripe asparagus, he says, ``They're good looking and great tasting. Besides, if they weren't delicious, no one would care how good they look.''

With brackish water agriculture, a controlled ``salt stress'' is used to boost the sugar content and add flavor to fruits and vegetables, Dr. Zaban explains. ``I've buried, salted, sunburned, drowned, mutated, and otherwise punished untold thousands of crop varieties,'' he says, in order to perfect strains such as the Negev tomato, prized in Europe for its rich taste and one-month shelf life.

Back at Neot Hakikar, Eisenmann walks through a field heavy with the scent of onions and points to what looks like a big birdhouse on a stand - a solar-powered computer from Motorola Israel, Ltd.: ``I call it Einstein. It's the brains of the operation.''

The computer automatically ``fertigates'' the fields. It's like farming by eye dropper: A supply of fertilizer and brackish water is dripped into individual plant roots through thin plastic tubing - an anti-evaporation method developed by Israel in the 1960s and now used throughout the world. Fertigation in sand, the desert's ready resource, solves the problems of salt burn on plant leaves, moisture-seeking pests, and soil-borne crop diseases, Eisenmann explains. ``And with this,'' he says, crouching beside a uniform row of jumbo eggplant and holding out a remote control calculator, ``I can run the computer from my living room.''

Israel now exports half its produce

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Genetic tinkering has also helped make every drop count. Vivid green against a stark desert backdrop, an orchard of 4,000 midget peach trees is densely packed into an acre, yielding the same quantity of fruit per tree as would 160 normal-sized trees. Nearby, golden fields of midget wheat able to produce 35 percent more grain per acre than full-size plants are ready for harvest.

In recent years, brackish water agriculture has achieved record strides and enabled Israel to export 50 percent of its produce. Cotton yields in the Negev outstrip those of California, Arizona, and Egypt; peanut yields are four times higher than in Georgia and West Virginia. ``In a few years the Negev will be Europe's main winter vegetable basket,'' says Shula Shacham, who lives with her family on the Ein Yahav settlement, several miles south of Neot Hakikar.

Three times a year, Ein Yahav's high-yield melons, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, dates, zucchini, and avocados are shipped to the markets of Europe weeks or months before local produce arrives. One farmer at Ein Yahav harvests crops three or four times a year, growing about 60 tons of food per acre - four to six times what a farmer in the United States might grow yearly.

``Even my youngster is a sophisticated food production engineer,'' Mrs. Shacham says, sending her off to check a nearby melon patch. Then Schacham leads the way to a crop bed under development, where deep-rooted terebinth trees and date palms have been planted as a break against wind and erosion. Next, tractors and bulldozers sent by the Jewish National Fund, Israel's historic land reclamation agency, will level the desert surface before planting. Her daughter returns and hands over a large, ripe cantelope. ``Export grade, sweet as ice cream,'' says Shacham, who cuts and offers a bright orange slice from the fruit.

The Negev brackish water aquifers are one-quarter the size of the desert and contain 300 billion cubic meters. Even larger deposits are estimated to lie under the great Saharan tracts of Africa and in the third world, where drought and hunger are prevalent, food supplies inadequate. There, desertification has already claimed millions of acres, and every year encroaches unchecked on millions more. Hence, others are looking to Israel's experience as a prototype for combating hunger problems in the world's arid zones.

The American Society for Horticultural Sciences recently called Israeli automated desert agriculture technology ``one of the most significant advances in food production in the past 100 years.'' With support from the US Agriculture Department, Israeli farmers are helping Navajo families in Arizona's Painted Desert stretch their scant water resources. Tahal, a leading Israeli agrotech company is working to help tap aquifers, install drip systems, and diversify local agriculture in the Panhandle and arid parts of western Texas.

Quietly bridging the political barriers, 10,000 Israeli brackish water specialists are training agronomists and villages in 54 countries around the world - many without diplomatic ties to Israel. Observes Mr. Perlmutter, the farmer-scientist, ``It's good news. The whole idea was to turn a curse into a benediction.''

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