ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 149

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Interview

Meet the Christian entrepreneur becoming a voice for war-hit Israeli farmers

Kari Warberg Block is raising funds to replace destroyed agricultural equipment after volunteering in kibbutzim and collecting footage to share stories of farmers and innovations

Sharon Wrobel is a tech reporter for The Times of Israel.

Kari Warberg Block, a US farmer and entrepreneur, who has been volunteering pruning tomato vines and helping harvest farmland in the western Negev close to the Egyptian border, February 2024. (Courtesy)
Kari Warberg Block, a US farmer and entrepreneur, who has been volunteering pruning tomato vines and helping harvest farmland in the western Negev close to the Egyptian border, February 2024. (Courtesy)

In Shefayim, a kibbutz near Herzliya, a Christian-American farmer and entrepreneur is volunteering in the dining hall, serving evacuated residents of Kfar Aza, the kibbutz where Hamas terrorists on October 7 murdered about 80 people – one in 10 residents — and abducted another 18.

“People here in the restaurant and elsewhere come and hug me,” Kari Warberg Block told The Times of Israel, speaking to this reporter outside the dining hall. “I am American, I am not even Jewish, so they are surprised I am here and it means so incredibly much to them.”

For the past 30 days, Warberg Block, originally from North Dakota with no personal or business ties to Israel, has been doing more than that: She is determined to become a voice for Israeli farmers.

Warberg Block has conducted video interviews with local agricultural pioneers in war-affected southern communities along the Gaza border to document the immediate challenges they are facing due to the large-scale destruction of farmland, equipment and machinery.

Speaking to The Times of Israel during her last days in Israel at the end of January, Warberg Block said she will use the footage to share stories about innovative agricultural technologies, that she says have already benefited the world, and which will help her in raising funds to support the rehabilitation of farming communities in the country’s south.

Warberg Block, who has since returned home to the United States, is starting a fundraiser for $360,000 as an initial goal — money that will go towards purchasing new tractors for Israeli farmers.

US entrepreneur Kari Warberg Block documents damage caused by Hamas terrorists to a greenhouse in Kibbutz Alumim on Oct. 7. (Courtesy)

Almost two months ago, around Christmas time, Warberg Block left her family behind in the US to fly to Israel, as she felt that as a farmer for 18 years, it was her calling to roll up her sleeves and bring her boots to help the devastated farms bring in the harvest in light of the severe labor shortage in the aftermath of the breakout of the war.

“When your house burns down, you find out who your friends are. But in Israel, houses and farms were burning down,” Warberg Block said. “In such incredible trauma, you need a friend.”

Since the Hamas-led onslaught on October 7, Israelis from all walks of life, from high-tech workers to students, have been volunteering in massive numbers to help the war effort, often coming for a day or two to pick crops on farms. Many foreign workers and students have also volunteered, leaving their lives behind and helping out on farms close to the Gaza border in the south and the Lebanon border in the north, where residents have been evacuated.

Before Hamas stormed into Israel on October 7, the western Negev region had some 8,000 foreign workers, including Thai workers, along with thousands of Palestinian field hands from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, who together constituted the bulk of the manpower in the agricultural sector of the area. Peppers, cucumbers and multiple varieties of citrus trees are grown on thousands of acres in the area, known informally as the Gaza envelope. About 75 percent of all Israel’s domestically grown vegetables come from the Gaza border area, as does 20% of the fruit and 6% of the milk.

In the Hamas-led onslaught, 32 Thai agricultural workers were murdered and 23 kidnapped, among some 1,200 people killed and over 250 taken hostage. In the aftermath, thousands were flown home by the Thai government.

For Warberg Block, it all started back home in Denver, North Carolina, when the 60-year-old entrepreneur followed the war developments in the aftermath of October 7 on the news, which made her restless as the rest of the world was not stepping up efforts to help and public support for Israel turned.

One of the tractors that were damaged during the Hamas-led onslaught on southern communities along the Gaza border on Oct. 7. (Courtesy)

“The news is not telling the real story and I believe dialogue is the key,” said Warberg Block. “As a farmer growing up on a family farm in North Dakota and as an entrepreneur, I can tell the story to the outside world in a very up close and personal way and be a fair voice.”

A disruptor at heart, Warberg Block is the founder and CEO of all-natural pest-repellent firm EarthKind, the developer of pouches of herbal mixes that act as rodent and insect repellents for farm and home use. She founded EarthKind with very little support and has built it into a $20 million company. The pouches are sold throughout the US by major retailers, including Lowe’s, John Deere, Tractor Supply Company, Ace Hardware, Walmart and Target.

“I have a large social following and I am proud to say that I am helping Israel as other people are too scared to do it,” said Warberg Block.

Before embarking on her sabbatical to Israel, as Warberg Block likes to call it, she had to take many precautions as she is running a company with shareholders, such as appointing an interim CEO to run the business in her absence.

“I put a $50,000 donation in, money I had originally saved to buy a new car, which I used to cover expenses, including touring around southern communities with a video production team, and pay for my trip to Israel,” she recounted.

The grandmother of seven said that once in Israel, she initially volunteered on a farm pruning tomato vines and harvesting tomatoes in the western Negev town of Kadesh Barnea, adjacent to the Egyptian border and about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Gaza.

Kari Warberg Block (left) is shown around war-damaged farmland and dairy farm by veteran farmer Eran Braverman at Kibbutz Alumim. (Courtesy)

“I was in a warzone, down south, where I was hearing fighter jets, and I was seeing bomb clouds,” Warberg Block said. “I felt remarkably at peace with all of it, which seems bizarre.”

To capture the personal stories and existential hardships local farmers are facing, Warberg Block hired a local video production company. The footage from her field trips will also showcase innovative technologies in precision agriculture that farmers have developed, in areas such as water management and drip irrigation, to address food security challenges. Back in the 1960s, Israel’s Netafim pioneered drip irrigation systems, creating a shift toward precision irrigation.

“Israelis are solution-based and the farming technologies and varieties that are being developed defy odds, such as growing pineapples in the desert,” said Warberg Block. “Farming shouldn’t work in the desert, but local farmers figured out how to grow tomatoes that taste wonderfully sweet in the arid, salty conditions of the desert.”

“There’s a huge opportunity for teaching and learning from farmers here; they cultivate with less water and higher productivity,” she added.

Eran Braverman is one of the veteran farmers whom Warberg Block will be raising funds for as he is starting to rebuild the operations of Kibbutz Alumim’s state-of-the-art dairy farm after Hamas terrorists destroyed and burnt down cow sheds, haylofts and feed trucks. The farm had 300,000 chickens destroyed, along with the barns. The kibbutz’s greenhouses were also intentionally targeted by Hamas that day, to disrupt agricultural production, Warberg Block said.

“Not only was all this damage done, but there is as much as 100,000 hectares of unharvestable crops, and farmers can’t get income from that,” Warberg Block remarked.

Kari Warberg Block (left) with Motti Barak, agricultural operations manager at Kibbutz Be’eri, in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 onslaught led by Hamas terrorists. (Courtesy)

Kibbutz Alumim, two miles from the Gaza border and halfway between Kibbutz Kfar Aza and Kibbutz Be’eri, was home to 41 foreign workers, 24 of them from Thailand and 17 of them agriculture students from Nepal. On that black Shabbat, nine Thais were massacred there, one was injured and four were abducted by Hamas gunmen. Ten of the Nepali students were gunned down, four were injured and one was abducted.

Most of the residents of the southern border communities have been evacuated to the center of the country, but many agriculturists come back daily to tend to their farm animals, in particular the unmilked cows and unfed chickens that they had to leave behind.

Among them is Motti Barak, the agricultural operations manager at Kibbutz Be’eri, where 100 people were murdered and 25 were taken captive by Hamas terrorists on October 7.

Barak and his wife were evacuated to a hotel in Tel Aviv, but he comes back daily. Days after the onslaught, while fighting was still going on, Barak returned to Kibbutz Be’eri, and gathered the cows that had been roaming free. Navigating them through blood-stained streets and between army tanks, he led them back to a safe place where they could be fed.

“Many cows got mastitis because they couldn’t be milked and for days they went without any kind of relief,” said Warberg Block. “The cows are back to milking three times a week, but they are still in trauma.”

For her fundraising effort, Warberg Block joined forces with ReGrow Israel, an initiative that has established an emergency fund to help restore and rebuild hard-hit farming communities that had their agricultural equipment and machinery destroyed in the October 7 terrorist attacks.

The initiative has been collating lists from individual war-affected kibbutz communities, setting out their most urgent field equipment and machinery needs to help them get back as swiftly as possible to farming the land. The equipment and machinery needs range from tractors, irrigation control systems, cooling systems, milk containers to forklifts.

The Israeli government is compensating communities within 7 kilometers of the Gaza border for indirect damage caused by the war, but the process takes time and the farmers can’t wait too long for financial assistance or reimbursement as they need money to get ready for the next growing season.

Christian-American farmer and entrepreneur Kari Warberg Block volunteers at the dining hall of Kibbutz Shefayim, January 2024. (Courtesy)

“I am raising funds for a new bunch of tractors – every farmer’s best friend,” said Warberg Block. “We have over a million farmers and businesses, including John Deere, who use our product, and I will ask them for contributions.”

This is where the video documentation footage created by Warberg Block during her tour with local farmers and agriculturists in war-affected southern communities comes in.

“From the voice of a farmer, being here and documenting it all, this is a package ready to go: I can show that this is what happened here, and this is what the money will be used for, and these are the people that they are helping, so that puts a very personal touch to it, and it is not political,” enthused Warberg Block. “Farmers must know that they have the support and help from other farmers: It is a language they share and that is one of the most important things I can do.”

Back home in North Carolina, Warberg Block is planning to put herself up for lecture series, participate in podcasts, write up policy briefs and briefing books, and prepare video-led stories about the farmers she has met in Israel and the innovative approaches to using technologies in agriculture she discovered during her “sabbatical.”

A shed burns following the attack by Hamas terrorists on Kibbutz Alumim, on October 7, 2023. (Stevie Marcus)

“Farmers I met with are so open about sharing and I have got them on video talking and that’s one of the things I want the world to know, that they are a good friend to the world, and an amazingly resilient people,” said Warberg Block. “The holistic approach to agritech is what stands out to me in Israel and that it is highly collaborative, and I believe that it is a very good role model for the future.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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