ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 142

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'I don't know how I'm going to go on'

As crops wither, farmers say fields will soon be barren without foreign workers

Volunteers help ease the agricultural sector’s devastation since Oct. 7, but as skilled manpower shortages take root throughout the country, farmers lose hope

  • Benny Anderman stands in a greenhouse next to vines of rotten red bell peppers, Moshav Talmei Eliyahu, November 15, 2023. (Mati Wagner / The Times of Israel)
    Benny Anderman stands in a greenhouse next to vines of rotten red bell peppers, Moshav Talmei Eliyahu, November 15, 2023. (Mati Wagner / The Times of Israel)
  • Yehudit Goddard stands among vines slated for uprooting in a greenhouse in Moshav Talmei Eliyahu, November 15, 2023. (Mati Wagner / The Times of Israel)
    Yehudit Goddard stands among vines slated for uprooting in a greenhouse in Moshav Talmei Eliyahu, November 15, 2023. (Mati Wagner / The Times of Israel)
  • Farmer Eli Pereg shows volunteers how to uproot pepper vines and untangle them from the strings holding them upright, Talmei Eliyahu, November 15, 2023. (Mati Wagner / The Times of Israel)
    Farmer Eli Pereg shows volunteers how to uproot pepper vines and untangle them from the strings holding them upright, Talmei Eliyahu, November 15, 2023. (Mati Wagner / The Times of Israel)

The booms of military clashes between the IDF and Hamas could be heard from Gaza seven kilometers (4.3 miles) to the west of the Talmei Eliyahu agricultural collective as a dozen volunteers dutifully lined up for work outside the entrance of a large greenhouse on November 15.

“Thank you for coming. I’ll show you what to do,” said Eli Pereg, a tanned and affable farmer who smiled as he handed red paring shears to the workers, ranging in age from 14 to 74.

This particular group of volunteers, one of many arriving daily to lend a hand to farmers across the nation reeling from the fallout of Hamas’s October 7 massacre, left their homes in Ma’ale Adumim at 5:15 a.m. to begin work at Talmei Eliyahu at 8:30 a.m. — after morning prayers and a quick breakfast.

“I feel like I have to do something to help these farmers,” said Benny Anderman, 74. “Better to be here than sitting around the house.”

But the putrid stench that greeted Anderman and the others from 6,000 square meters (roughly 65,000 square feet) of bell peppers rotting on their vines was testimony to the extent of the loss resulting from Hamas’s onslaught.

The devastation in Pereg’s greenhouse is part of a larger picture of loss threatening the future of Israeli agriculture.

Farmer Eli Pereg hands out pruning shears to volunteers at the entrance to one of his greenhouses in Talmei Eliyahu, November 15, 2023. (Mati Wagner / The Times of Israel)

In what Agriculture Ministry director general Oren Lavi has called the worst manpower crisis for agriculture in Israel’s history, there is a shortage of about 40,000 farm laborers, according to data presented by the Agriculture Ministry to a Knesset subcommittee on economic growth that met November 15.

On October 7, Hamas-led terrorists swarmed over the border with Israel and murdered over 1,200 people, mostly civilians butchered in their homes and at music festivals, and took at least 240 hostages. Israel then declared war against Hamas, with the aim of toppling the terror group’s regime in Gaza, which it has ruled since taking over in 2007.

In the rampage, Hamas murdered 32 Thai farm laborers and kidnapped 23, according to Thai government figures.

Following the massacres, Israel lost 10,000 foreign workers — one-third of its total foreign workforce, most of which is Thai. In the wake of the October 7 attack, many Thai workers feared for their safety and received messages from Thai government officials urging them to come home. They left on flights back to Thailand that were funded by the Thai government.

Meanwhile, a freeze in work permits due to security concerns is preventing about 20,000 Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank from entering Israel. Many Israelis who work in agriculture are on reserve duty, serving near Gaza, in the North, or buttressing regular IDF forces defending Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria.

A 2021 Knesset study quoting data from 2020 showed that 75,200 people worked in the agriculture sector — 49 percent of them Israeli, 32% foreign, mostly Thai, and 19% Palestinian.

“I’ve lost 80% of my crops in this mess,” estimates Pereg. “And I don’t know how I will continue from here.”

Benny Anderman stands in a greenhouse next to vines of rotten red bell peppers, Moshav Talmei Eliyahu, November 15, 2023. (Mati Wagner / The Times of Israel)

Twelve of Pereg’s 14 farmhands heeded a call to return by the Thai government, which paid for their plane tickets home. Pereg paid wages to departing laborers knowing most of his crops would be lost.

“Pictures circulating on social media of Gazans beheading a Thai man with garden hoes scared most of my workers,” said Pereg. “The two who stayed have been with me the longest and are used to wars.”

In the days after thousands of terrorists overran Israel’s border with Hamas-controlled Gaza and indiscriminately massacred, raped, pillaged, and kidnapped, the IDF evacuated the Gaza border region, one of Israel’s most agriculturally productive areas.

Shortages doubled and tripled prices for tomatoes and cucumbers that were selling for as much as NIS 30 per kilogram (roughly $3.70 per lb.), in the wake of the attack.

Farmer Eli Pereg shows volunteers how to uproot pepper vines and untangle them from the strings holding them upright, in Talmei Eliyahu, November 15, 2023. (Mati Wagner / The Times of Israel)

Large supermarket chains scrambled to import, mostly from Turkey, whose president Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently referred to Israel as a “terrorist state” and Hamas as “resistance fighters.”

On the morning of October 7, Talmei Eliyahu’s security detail managed to repulse a Toyota Hilux pickup truck full of Kalashnikov-toting terrorists that reached the front gate.

Still, the entire town was evacuated and farmers were unable to work their lands for over a week. And even after they were permitted to return, they had lost critical numbers of Thai workers.

Volunteers stepped in to try to fill the vacuum created by the exodus. But by that time, the large retail chains had already signed import contracts with foreign growers.

“The big chains didn’t want to look in our direction,” said Shlomo Yifrah, who owns 50 hectares (123 acres) of fields in Tirosh, located between Beit Shemesh and Kiryat Malachi, 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Gaza. “They only care about their pockets.”

Despite his distance from Gaza, he lost all but three of his 30 Thai workers.

“Thanks to volunteers, we managed to save 20% of the produce. We were able to sell to small grocery stores,” he said.

Numerous volunteer initiatives have been launched to pair volunteers with needy farmers, including some from the Diaspora.

Taglit-Birthright has called on some 850,000 alumni in North America to come to help Israeli farmers, and about 80 members of the US-based Jewish mothers’ group Momentum came to Israel to volunteer.

Locally, HaShomer HaHadash, a grassroots movement to protect farmers from extortion, theft and vandalism — mostly from Arab Israelis and Palestinians — is organizing groups of volunteers, as is Achim Leneshek, a group of reserve-duty or retired IDF officers that was first created to protest the judicial reforms proposed by the government. Another initiative is being led by the Israeli American Council-organized group Tzav 8.

In addition, numerous pre-military preparatory academies have volunteered, as have high schools.

These initiatives and others reveal a vibrant sense of community and trust that enables spontaneous cooperation across diverse groups within Israeli society and between Israel and the Diaspora.

“I came here to help save Israeli agriculture,” said Yehudit Goddard, an art therapist from Ma’ale Adumim.

Yehudit Goddard stands among vines slated for uprooting in a greenhouse in Moshav Talmei Eliyahu, November 15, 2023. (Mati Wagner / The Times of Israel)

Yifrah said that in two weeks, all of his crops will be picked unless something unexpected happens. But for the next stage, he will be unable to use unskilled volunteers.

“I just don’t have the workers I need to plant another crop,” he said.

Yifrah says he feels abandoned.

“My workers left, the supermarket chains imported from Turkey, and we still don’t know if the government is going to help us,” Yifrah said. “My only consolation is the volunteers.”

On November 15, the Agriculture and Finance ministries and the Knesset Finance Committee, along with the Israeli Farmers’ Association, agreed on a framework for compensating farmers for their losses, which the Knesset must still approve.

Full compensation will be provided to farms within nine kilometers (5.5 miles) of the Lebanon border, or seven kilometers (4.3 miles) from the Gaza border.

A maximum of NIS 3 million ($780,000) in damages per month will be provided to farms located up to 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) from either border.

An undetermined amount will be provided to farmers like Yifrah who live more than 20 kilometers from a border.

The Knesset has yet to vote on the plan.

The government is also attempting to entice Israelis who are unemployed or not in the job market to become farmhands by offering monthly stipends of NIS 3,000 ($800) above and beyond what they receive from farmers.

Noam Shalev (R) and Roni Waldman, two volunteers from Modi’im sitting outside a greenhouse in Talmei Eliyahu, say volunteers offer only a partial solution, November 15, 2023. (Mati Wagner / The Times of Israel)

If they stay at work for more than two months, their monthly stipend will go up to NIS 4,000 ($1,100). And if they agree to work in evacuated farms near Gaza or Lebanon and Syria, they will receive double the amount.

But near Gaza, Pereg is skeptical about finding a critical mass of Israelis to replace the Thai workers.

“Israelis don’t want to do this kind of work and even most foreigners can’t stand the heat here,” Pereg said. “Maybe Sri Lankans or Vietnamese.”

Pereg said he was uncomfortable having volunteers do demeaning tasks such as cleaning up rotten bell peppers strewn throughout the greenhouses. But they can’t do more complex tasks such as operating a tractor or planting, he said.

By around 2 p.m., about five hours after they began working in the greenhouse uprooting the bell pepper vines, the volunteers began heading back home, saying they had enough for the day.

Noam Shalev and Roni Waldman, two volunteers from Modi’in, smeared with the detritus of red bell peppers, expressed concern about the future of Israeli agriculture.

“People are going to start getting tired of this work,” said Shalev.

“This is not a long-term solution,” added Waldman.

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