Each Shavuot, synagogue goers read about biblical Ruth who fed her mother-in-law, Naomi, from the gleanings left behind for the poor in the wheat harvest.
Crops and harvests are still relevant in Israel, where some 17,000 farms continue to supply much of the country’s produce, meat, chicken and milk, according to a 2020 census taken by the Central Bureau of Statistics.
But many farmers are struggling to make ends meet, find workers and market their produce.
“It’s very hard to farm in Israel,” said farmer Tomer Moerman. “But there’s something you can’t explain about farming, that despite 40°C (104°F) heat and snakes and creepy crawlers, there’s magic to be had in nature.”
For the last year, Moerman has been working with Hashomer Hachadash, a Zionist agricultural initiative, which aims to build a stronger connection between Israelis and the land, primarily through farming.
The initiative helps farmers in a number of ways, from matching them with volunteers to handling the donation of “ugly” fruit — imperfect and blemished produce that can’t be sold.
Hashomer Hachadash posts photos of each farm’s ugly fruit on social media, waiting for a food organization to request the produce and then dispatching a volunteer to bring the blemished produce to a food pantry.
One of Hashomer Hachadash’s latest efforts is SunDo, an app that matches farmers and volunteers who want to help out on local farms.
“We saw that there’s a huge interest of the public to learn about farming, to touch the earth, to understand its worth, where the tomato grows and to get tied to all this,” said Yoel Zilberman, a Hashomer Hachadash co-founder.
Hashomer Hachadash tapped into the agritourism market, creating the SunDo app and marketplace that links farmers and volunteers.
“It does help,” said Moerman, who had 50 people helping out on the farm during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moerman, 49, is the second generation of his family to run the wholesale fruit business that his father, Amiram, now 85 and still working, established in the late 1950s. The family grows seasonal fruits — downy orange loquats and fuzzy peaches, crisp apples and glossy orange persimmons — but these days it’s nearly impossible to hire farm workers to pick them.
“The volunteers came, the youth and doctors and nurses and lawyers and judges and people of all ages and they weeded and picked,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine how it would work, but they come, happy to give and volunteer.”
Eden Barash, 22, recently spent a week with a friend on a small farm in the north, helping out a farmer who still has to work outside his small 20-dunam farm in order to make ends meet.
“We were there to be an extra pair of hands for him,” said Barash, who weeded vegetables and herbs being grown in a greenhouse.
Avner Jerasi, 63, has been volunteering weekly at an organic farm in Emek Hefer after he retired from his job at Bank Leumi and saw an advertisement about farmers who needed help.
Now he volunteers weekly with six friends, doing whatever his farmer needs, whether stocking the shelves in the small farm store, seeding, picking and weeding. They’re at the farm from early in the morning until midday, including a breakfast break with the owners.
Funded by several government ministries as well as foundations, Hashomer Hachadash is a non-profit but has turned the SunDo app into a profit-making venture, hoping to bring the idea to other countries, including the US.
“What’s amazing is the communities around the farmers,” said Zilberman. “It’s a community of people who love the earth and farmers who love people, and create a connection between them.”
According to Israel’s Agriculture Ministry, the COVID-19 pandemic saw a major uptick in volunteers, with 13,500 helping out at 240 farming communities, a 55% increase from 1.3 million volunteer hours to more than 2 million hours.
A big chunk of those volunteers came from SunDo, which is “like the Airbnb of the agricultural industry,” said Michal Levy, senior vice president of agriculture innovation at the ministry. “It’s where people can come and do good.”
The ministry recently had a NIS 95 million budget approved for new technologies in agriculture, one of the ways it wants to support farmers and deal with various agricultural issues, said Levy.
Hashomer Hachadash ultimately wants to reach 500,000 volunteers and 7,000 farmers, creating a one-stop-shop that will help farmers with direct sales, volunteers and tourism, and give the public access to the world of farming, said Zilberman.
“The public is understanding more and more about protecting the world, and we’re trying to get farmers to connect to technology and that’s hard,” he said. “Both sides have to work together.”
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