ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 147

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Winter showers boost wheat crop, but water worries continue to stalk farmers

Downpours over last two weeks are welcomed in Israel’s northern Negev breadbasket, but drops will need to keep falling for next two months to avoid poor harvest, say cultivators

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

David Levy, General Manager of the Israel Association of Field Crop Growers. (Courtesy David Levy)
David Levy, General Manager of the Israel Association of Field Crop Growers. (Courtesy David Levy)

Many farmers of rain-fed crops such as wheat and barley have been celebrating the wet weather that has drenched much of the country for the past two weeks.

Around 1.1 million dunams (270,000 acres) are cultivated for wheat in Israel each year, with half of it used for hay, mainly for the dairy industry, and the other half for grain and straw, according to David Levy, general manager of the Israel Association of Field Crop Growers. An additional 50,000 dunams (12,300 acres), are used for barley, which is more drought-resistant than wheat. Barley is primarily used for animal feed.

According to data from the Israel Meteorological Service, parts of the country have gotten over 700 millimeters of water so far this fall and winter, nearly double the seasonal average. In the western Negev, an area known as Israel’s breadbasket, the totals have been lower, but have still neared seasonal averages, with a large chunk of the rain coming in the last few weeks’ downpours.

“There’s been some flooding, but the damage is negligible compared with the benefits,” said Levy.

Roughly 400,000 dunams (just under 100,000 acres) of land in southern Israel is used for wheat cultivation, of which 120,000 dunams (30,000 acres) are within seven kilometers (4.35 miles) of the Gaza border, an area largely evacuated in the wake of the October 7 Hamas attack.

Much of the barley is also cultivated in the Negev.

Despite the recent rains, farmers say the showers will need to continue falling for the next two months for the crop to really benefit.

“We start sowing at the beginning of November,” Levy said. “The seeds sit in the ground and wait for rain. Now we need rain in February and particularly March when the grain seeds (on the wheat) start filling out. Otherwise, they’ll be small and not in the best state for milling.”

Bread wheat. (Courtesy, Prof. Vered Zin, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev).

At Kibbutz Negba in the northern Negev east of Ashkelon, farmer Idan Kaufman, 49, said the wheat Negba grows in partnership with Moshav Masu’ot Yitzhak looked great.

From August 1 to February 5, the kibbutz received 351 millimeters (13.8 inches) of rain, 98 percent of the average for the corresponding period. Over 40% of that total has come since January 21, according to official data. The kibbutz averages 485 millimeters (19 inches) a year.

“We missed the first rains and the wheat germinated around December 20,” said Kaufman. “Then it wasn’t too hot. There were small amounts of rain, then the big downpour. There’ll probably be a bit more in a couple of weeks, and in March there are usually a few drops.”

Further south, though, Yaniv Blushtein, 64, from Kibbutz Mishmar Hanegev, northwest of Beersheba, was feeling less certain.

In partnership with Kibbutz Beit Kama, Mishmar Hanegev grows 20,000 dunams (just under 5,000 acres) of wheat and barley.

The area had seen only 90 millimeters (3.5 inches) this season so far, down 28% from the seasonal average to this point, according to official readings in Beersheba.

Yaniv Blushtein. (Courtesy)

Blushtein said the kibbutz had received a bit more rain than that so far this winter, though only 35 millimeters (1.4 inches) had fallen over the past two weeks. On average, the kibbutz gets 220 millimeters (8.7 inches) a year, he said.

“We sowed in November, there was a bit of rain, the seeds germinated and then the (rainfed) plants went yellow,” Blushtein said. “The rain of the last fortnight brought them back to life. There’s damage, but we have to see how much. There’s no rain expected for the next 10 days.”

The kibbutz irrigates about half of its wheat with whatever is left over from watering other crops. It uses a mixture of drinking water, treated and recycled water from Shafdan, a wastewater treatment plant in central Israel, and recycled wastewater from the nearby Bedouin city of Rahat which is stored in a reservoir nearby.

“It probably won’t be a good year,” Blushtein said. “The winter didn’t start well. It was warm. We don’t know where it will go. The uncertainty is part of growing field crops.”

View of the Beit Zayit reservoir near Jerusalem during heavy rains, January 28, 2024 (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

With climate change leading to warmer winters, fewer rain events, and periods of  more concentrated, heavy rainfall when there is precipitation, farmers are wondering what lies in store for them over the coming months and years.

Israel imports a million tons of wheat every year and produces 100,000 to 150,000 tons locally, according to Levy. This year, cultivation is likely even smaller due to the October 7 Hamas assault on southern Israel, in which Israeli farming communities near the Gaza border were brutally attacked, with some 1,200 people killed and another 253 kidnapped.

A major factor limiting wheat-growing in Israel is access to water, especially in drier areas like the Negev and the Jordan Valley. If farmers could water their fields affordably, “we could probably double grain production in the country,” Levy said.

Blushtein said bigger quantities of water, an expanded distribution network, and lower water prices (a cubic meter currently costs NIS 1.4, or 38 cents) would be needed to grow grains as the climate warms.

In the meantime, scientists at Israel’s national agricultural research and development center, Volcani, are creating more drought-resistant grain varieties, as are commercial Israeli seed companies such as Hazera Seeds and Agridera Seeds.

“The world population is growing, the climate situation is not getting better, the amount of arable land on which wheat can be grown is limited, and the question of agricultural commodities, and wheat specifically, will become an issue over the next two to three decades,” Levy said.

A farmer harvests wheat in the Hula Valley, northern Israel, May 17, 2023. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

Levy noted that growing wheat locally was essential for the country’s food security, adding that cutting back on imports would also reduce global warming emissions associated with shipping food, as well as the fact that most of the wheat was coming from Russia.

“We’re supporting [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” he said. “It’s crazy.”

“We can be boycotted, there can be a war and the ports can be closed,” Levy said. “Thinking that everything can be taken care of by imports doesn’t make sense.”

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