With exports shuttered, farmers turn to WhatsApp to hawk their produce

With exports shuttered, farmers turn to WhatsApp to hawk their produce

Need asparagus? A bunch of organic herbs? There’s produce aplenty for sale during the coronavirus crisis

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

Members of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion helping get peonies ready for sale in Israel earlier this year, before many social distancing regulations took effect. (Courtesy Kibbutz Kfar Etzion)
Members of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion helping get peonies ready for sale in Israel earlier this year, before many social distancing regulations took effect. (Courtesy Kibbutz Kfar Etzion)

When Adi Cohen pulled her car up to a curb last Monday in a small shopping center in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Arnona, a bunch of locals were waiting to collect their packages of asparagus.

And what asparagus it was: NIS 50 ($14) for 1.5 kilo of tender, pencil-thin young shoots, grown by her husband, Sagi Cohen in Moshav Prazon, in the Jezreel Valley.

The asparagus had been destined for hotels and restaurants in Israel, said Sagi, who is a third-generation farmer on the moshav, nestled in northern Israel, between Afula and Beit Shean.

But Israel’s hotels and restaurants are now all closed.

“We just got stuck with everything, with this coronavirus story,” said Cohen. “They closed the skies, there were no flights, and we send all our herbs on planes, not on boats. Europe just closed, and so did the hotels here. So we were left with all this produce.”

The thin shoots of asparagus raised by Sagi Cohen are being sold around the country, through social networks (Courtesy Sagi Cohen)

So the Cohens decided to do what many farmers have done in the past weeks, and sell it themselves in the Israeli market.

“We decided to advertise on Facebook,” said Cohen. “It seemed to be the most obvious solution.”

Within one day, they received 30,000 requests for asparagus through the Facebook page, and another 20,000 through WhatsApp and other connections.

Now the Cohens and their children are driving their family cars around the country, delivering the fragrant green shoots before the Passover seder on Wednesday night.

“It was this amazing rallying effort from people all over Israel,” he said. “Really, we can’t thank everyone enough. They truly helped us.”

The asparagus sales have helped, although the farm’s herbs — they sell around 1,000 tons each year — are going to waste, said Cohen. “Years of work down the drain.”

Sagi Cohen, a farmer in the Jezreel Valley, is trying to get rid of his tons of greens and asparagus that usually gets sold abroad and to Israeli hotels and restaurants (Courtesy Sagi Cohen)

When the coronavirus became a real threat in Israel, the government closed schools and workplaces. The tourism industry, including restaurants and cafes, as well as Israel’s growers were not prepared.

While many growers sell through Israel’s export channels, at this time, “everyone is on their own,” said Cohen. “We’re all expected to save ourselves.”

That is what many have done, from growers and farmers to stall owners in Israel’s many open markets, who are stuck with produce they bought and could not sell once the markets were closed.

Those with produce to sell have turned to social networks, including Facebook and Instagram, and often utilizing the many, close-knit circles in Israeli society that operate on WhatsApp, the messaging application that allows users to broadcast messages to many different groups and users at one time.

The farmers do not have much choice but to figure this disaster out themselves, said Zvi Alon, director general of the Plant Council, which represents and advances fruit and vegetable growers’ interests.

“What can be said?” said Alon, who has charged the Israeli government as among the stingiest in the OECD nations when it comes to providing farmers with financial support. “Very simply, demand is down by a third. And there’s nothing we can do about that.”

It’s a sad story, said Yehuda Reines, a farmer in the Jordan Valley who has been growing herbs for export to the European market for the last 30 years.

“I’m not whining,” said Reines. “I was never a millionaire, but the world will be different after this and we all know that.”

Yehuda Reines in a field of his Jordan Valley grown-greens in Moshav Mehola, usually destined for Europe, but now being delivered around Israel to private customers (Courtesy Yehuda Reines)

He runs Jordan River Herbs from Moshav Mehola with another farmer, growing more than 500 tons of herbs for the European market and organic greens for the Israeli market.

“It all stopped at once,” said Reines. “All the markets we work with closed, and we’re one of the big ones. And in the end, we’ll be stuck with it all.”

When the extent of the coronavirus crisis became clear, “everyone just took care of themselves,” said Reines. “The export system just closed.”

Reines is also sure that the export system that supported him and so many other Israeli farmers will not return to normal anytime soon.

“The Europeans will think hard before they go back to that system,” said Reines. The situation “is just very complicated.”

Organic produce makes up 1.5% of Israeli agricultural output, and accounts for 13% of the total $360 million in agricultural exports in 2017, according to Israel Agri, a local agricultural portal.

Rows of fresh herbs that were bound for Europe from Moshav Prazon, that are now stuck in Israel ,due to the coronavirus (.Courtesy Sagi Cohen)

It was Reines’s kids’ idea to try and sell some of the greens and herbs in Israel.

“It will help just a little,” said Reines, who began raising herbs 35 years ago, back when organic produce and basil were considered exotic. “We’re used to dealing with three or four clients, and now we’re dealing with hundreds, all over the country.

Like Cohen and his family shuttling bundles of asparagus around Israel, Reines and his kids are delivering packets of herbs from their farm in the Jordan Valley, through word of mouth and WhatsApp groups.

“You don’t have to be a genius to figure out how to do this stuff,” he said. “To find a solution for the coronavirus is a lot harder.”

Getting wheelbarrows full of peonies ready to sell in the Israeli market from Kibbutz Kfar Etzion (Courtesy Kibbutz Kfar Etzion)

When the virus hit Israel, Yaron Rozenthal had to figure out what to do with 300,000 peonies, all grown for export at Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, where he recently took over as manager.

“We had to start the business from scratch and figure out how to sell these flowers,” said Rozenthal. “It’s NIS 1 million ($279,000) in inventory and we needed to save our business.”

Peonies are not a well-known flower in Israel; the fragrant, many-petaled bloomers are native to Asia, Europe and North America. That said, the kibbutz has been raising them since 1996, and selling 300,000 each year to the Netherlands.

For Rozenthal and Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, that means teaching Israelis about peonies, a flower they’re less familiar with.

“They’re very expensive to raise, but they sell for NIS 30 ($8) a flower,” said Rozenthal. “That was our market.”

Some of the thousands of fresh peonies picked and bound for Israeli homes, once European exports were no longer an option during the coronavirus Courtesy Yaron Rozenthal)

Rozenthal knew he would not be able to sell peonies for NIS 30 apiece in Israel, where locals are struggling themselves to make ends meet. But he figured he wanted to at least sell what he had, and break even.

They put up a website within a few hours, and began to sell through the website, a Facebook page and hundreds of WhatsApp messages sent around to their networks.

By the next day, they were delivering to Jerusalem. A week later, they drove around the country, delivering 5,000 flowers a day. Rozenthal is also thinking about continuing to offer direct sales to customers after the crisis, without wholesalers or florists.

“Peonies hold for a long time, at least 10 days, or two weekends,” said Rozenthal.

למה באירופה כל כך אוהבים את האדמונית?כמו שתראו בתמונות הנהדרות שצילם חברנו יוחאי סמט הצלם המוכשר, האדמונית נקטפת…

פורסם על ידי ‏ירון רוזנטל‏ ב- יום חמישי, 2 באפריל 2020

He has another two months of flowers in the field and then he will reach cherry season. The kibbutz is the largest grower of cherries, producing 150 to 200 tons each year.

“It’s a serious problem,” he said. “I totally believe that in the end these kinds of crises create opportunities for us, and we have to find the best in those opportunities.”

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