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The fruit farmer who swears by his pomegranates (and loquats and apricots)

Amiram Moerman says pomegranate juice saved him from the coronavirus, but rails against the Israeli government and its latest efforts to change the local farming industry

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

Amiram Moierman, 85, is a lifelong fruit farmer who's been fighting the battle against encroaching imports. In his Karmei Yosef orchards, June 2021. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Amiram Moierman, 85, is a lifelong fruit farmer who's been fighting the battle against encroaching imports. In his Karmei Yosef orchards, June 2021. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Amiram Moerman loves his pomegranates.

In fact, Moerman, 85, claims that twice-daily doses of the ruby red juice are what healed him from a recent bout of COVID-19.

“Its juice is like wine,” said Moerman, referring to the Emek species ripening in his orchards right now. “The health clinic is doing research on me because pomegranates healed me.”

The healing properties of the pomegranate are well-known, particularly to Moerman, who has been growing two species for years, the current Emek and the sourer Wonderful, which will ripen in about a month.

Fruit, or more specifically, pomegranates, peach-colored loquats and fuzzy apricots are what have occupied Moerman for many decades, from this corner of Moshav Karmei Yosef, where he raises 400 dunams (99 acres) of orchards.

This is where he has grown a fruit empire, continuing his parents’ work begun at a Tel Aviv fruit stand, and now being carried on by one of his three children, Tomer Moerman.

Amiram Moerman, front right, sorting pomegranates from his fruit orchards, ahead of Rosh Hashana 2021 (Courtesy Tomer Moerman)

 

These days, however, Moerman is furious with the government and the suggested reform that would see import restrictions eased on agricultural products. Proponents have been pushing the reform, saying that it will lower the prices, while critics say that it will harm the local industry.

“They don’t understand that the whole coronavirus is tied to food,” he said. “Our temperatures are changing and who can rely on buying food from other countries? Where will our food come from?”

It’s a battle he’s been fighting for years.

I first met Moerman in June, sitting at a picnic table in his orchard, as we munched our way through a container of apricots and another one of loquats. By the end of our conversation, we had a neat pile of rough apricot pits alongside another mound of smooth brown loquat pits.

“Do you feel the energy you’re getting from this apricot?” he asked.

It’s true, this was no average apricot. It was larger than the average supermarket apricot, twisting apart easily, its sweet and juicy flesh eaten in just a couple of bites. Moerman’s apricots come into season around the same time as loquats, the fuzzy orange fruits that are similar in size to Italian plums, called shesek in Hebrew, and are actually related to apples, pears and peaches, but are also known as Chinese plums.

The loquats and apricots grown by the Moierman men in their Karmei Yosef orchards, June 2021. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

To Moerman, however, the self-proclaimed king of loquats in Israel, the two fruits are equally desirable, eaten in multiples and frequently when in season. He loves loquats so much that he made up a ditty that was played on the radio incessantly in the mid-1990s.

The tongue twister of a radio commercial advertised loquats played on the words shesek, and cheshek, which means desire. “Yesh li cheshek l’shesek,” translated as, “I’ve got a thing for loquats.”

“You eat one, and you feel desire,” said Moerman. “But I couldn’t say that and upset the ultra-Orthodox.”

So instead, he came up with the tongue twister, heralding the entry of the small, oval-shaped fruit into the local produce market.

Moerman has been in the fruit business since he was a kid, picking mangoes from an orchard his father bought for 800 lira in 1948 and then helping him schlep them home on a public bus to then sell at their Tel Aviv fruit stand.

His life as a farmer aligns with the ups and downs of Israel’s agricultural history, from the times when the nascent country had to grow its own food to today, when Israel is importing more fruits and vegetables, putting the local farmers at risk of going out of business.

Moerman’s parents came to Israel from Belarus with very little, and ended up buying the fruit store where his father had worked.

Local farmers sold directly to the store, which is where Moerman first met them and discovered his own yen for owning and working the land.

“Farming is a kind of virus that you catch,” he said.

He’s never lived on this land on Karmei Yosef, but has rather been a commuting farmer. His late wife, Ester, had health issues and needed to be closer to a hospital, so they raised their family in Ramat Hasharon.

He still commutes to his orchards every day.

“The name of the game is to be obstinate and do what you want regardless of how hard it is,” he said.

A Moerman fruit orchard loaded with Golden Nugget loquats, in June 2021 (Courtesy Tomer Moerman)

“I have 25,000 children, my trees in this orchard,” said Moerman, pointing at the lines of trees surrounding the picnic table, trees teeming with ripe loquats, trees beginning to grow tiny green pomegranates, and the apricot trees, laden with orange orbs.

“I come here every day, I say good morning to them, I feed them breakfast and dinner, and this is my forest of loquats, apricots, grapes and pomegranates.”

It’s been a tough business, particularly for the last 20 years, as the wholesale market changed dramatically when food companies Tnuva and Strauss entered the produce business, buying fruits and vegetables grown by farmers and then selling that to the large supermarket chains where produce is generally cheaper and of a lower quality.

“Supermarkets only have the standard produce and someone like me grows premium fruit,” said Moerman. “And why are we importing fruits and vegetables when we have our own here?

A recent Times of Israel report by Sue Surkes showed that retailers are routinely marking up prices of fruits and vegetables by 100 percent, and in some cases over 200%, according to Agriculture Ministry research.

Agriculture Minister Oded Forer is seeking to lower consumer prices for produce by pushing through controversial reforms that will cut the tariffs protecting local growers, but farmers insist they are paid a fraction of what supermarkets charge and are being unfairly targeted by the government plan.

“There’s no future here for my kids, but this is all I have to give to them,” said Moerman. “I should’ve bought them houses. It’s a tragedy. You have to be a real bastard to continue with this business.”

Tomer Moerman (left) has been working with his father, Amiram, in the family business for the last few years. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

As Moerman and his son, Tomer, 48, drove me back to my car, the younger scion of this verdant fruit orchard said that he would never go back to advertising and the corporate world where he once worked.

“I see a lot of people going to their family businesses because no one worries about you the way a family business does,” he said.

They’ll take a few weeks off after the pomegranate season ends before the loquat trees begin blooming, with “tens of thousands of flowers and millions of bees” in November, said Moerman.

“It’s like in Japan when people go to look at the cherry blossoms,” he said. “I want people to come see it.”

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