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A prickly pear pioneer

Noam Blum and his son, Shahar, are sabras who believe in the sabra (fruit)

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Noam and Shahar Blum, the father and son farming team at the Orly Cactus Farm, where they're planning on turning prickly pears into the food of the future (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Noam and Shahar Blum, the father and son farming team at the Orly Cactus Farm, where they're planning on turning prickly pears into the food of the future (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Noam Blum has big plans for the prickly pear.

Rich in fiber, easy to grow and considered helpful against diabetes and cholesterol, it’s a fruit he thinks can help solve world hunger and global health problems.

Yes, he’s talking about the sabra, a thorny fruit with a prickly skin and sweet, soft interior, that grows like a weed and lent Israelis their national nickname, way back when.

It’s a bush that has been used by various nations as a natural fencing — the Australians have been trying for years to get rid of it — or as the main ingredient of cactus fries (sliced, battered and fried segments of prickly pear pads). Ironically, the sabr, as it’s known in Arabic, stands for patience and is a symbol of the nonviolent Palestinian struggle.

The Hebrew word for the prickly pear, sabra, comes from the Arabic term, learned by Polish immigrants when they first came upon the plant.

For Blum, however, it’s all about the fruit’s resilience. He demonstrates how the fruit emerges from its plant’s wide, flat leaves, regenerating every time it’s cut or sliced. He shows off his six species of prickly pears, each in a different shade of red, orange and pink, and all organic, because bugs don’t go near the thorny fruit.

At the farm, they cook the fruit into jams and spicy chutneys, and chop the leaves into green bean-like strips for curries that are predominantly Mexican in flavor, given that country’s love for the fruit, called tuna in Spanish.

“It tastes like green beans,” said Blum.

A meal of sabres-based dishes. The Blums highly recommend their sabres smoothies, made by blending the fruit in a blender or food processor, straining the seeds, and serving cold (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
A meal of sabra-based dishes. The Blums highly recommend their sabra smoothies, made by blending the fruit in a blender or food processor, straining the seeds, and serving cold (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

He is something of a prickly pear progenitor.

A former Shaldag air force commando veteran and engineer, the elder Blum and his son, Shahar, are the proprietors of the Orly Cactus Farm, 1,200 dunams of prickly pear trees, or 200 kilometers of rows of trees, as Shahar Blum likes to say.

It all started when Shahar, now 36, was just a kid. He doesn’t remember a time when prickly pears weren’t around their house. Growing up on a moshav outside Rehovot, where the family still lives — the Israeli government does not allow them to live on the farm — the younger Blum would head to the prickly pear bushes on the outskirts of the moshav, armed with a stick and can, the best method for detaching the fruit off their knobby leaves without getting stuck with the thorns.

“You know how some people dream about cold Cokes at the beach?” said Blum. “I drink the juice of a sabra. That’s what does it for me.”

He didn’t have much of a choice. His father, who studied engineering at the Technion Institute, soon turned his experimental eye on the prickly pear, captivated by its availability and the possibilities of using it as a food source.

Some kids dream of becoming a president or a doctor or a fireman, Blum likes to say. He always dreamed of providing food to the world.

A view of the Blum's 1,200 dunams of prickly pear trees (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
A view of the Blum’s 1,200 dunams of prickly pear trees (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

After discovering the many facets of the prickly pear, Blum developed his own species of the pear, with fewer thorns, and in season for ten months of the year. (But it can still be used as a new fruit for Rosh Hashanah, as they’re available right now.) That was stage one.

The next stages, which have taken up the better part of the last 30 years, involved convincing the government to let him farm the cactus pears in this barren stretch of desert land between the southern towns of Dimona and Yeruham.

That took considerably more time, and after several rough starts, the Blums set up their farm, named after Shahar’s sister, Orly. Their only neighbors are a handful of Bedouin camps and the Dimona industrial zone. But it’s a great location for prickly pear trees.

“There’s a lot of sun out here,” said Blum. “The sabras love the rays.”

They began selling the fruit to Israeli supermarkets in 1994, a first for the prickly pear in local stores, and now sell more than 60% of their crop locally and export the rest.

“It all gets sold,” said Shahar Blum.

Last year, they opened the farm’s visitor’s center, which offers hour-and-a-half tours of the farm, including learning about prickly pears, art and petting zoo activities for kids and a meal based on the fruit.

Trains, goats and prickly plants at the Orly Cactus Farm in the Negev (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Trains, goats and prickly plants at the Orly Cactus Farm in the Negev (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

“People don’t know how to eat a sabra anymore,” said Shahar Blum. “If someone is 30 and under, chances are they’ve never eaten one.”

But their real goal is the next stage of the farm, opening a food factory that will manufacture various food products made from their 40,000 tons of prickly pears.

They’re hoping for a joint venture for their pilot program, with “someone who understands the benefits” of the prickly pear and their plan to use it as a platform for a variety of products, said Shahar Blum. They’ll settle for a crowdsourcing option as well.

They intend to produce different kinds of condiments, from spicy to sweet, as well as drinks, breads, sabra schnitzels, health bars and frozen prickly pear leaves for cooking.

“We’re going to get rid of the steak and the schnitzel and the tuna, and create 500 different foods out of the sabra,” added his father. “I’m planning it for the next generation.”

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