Farming in the Desert: People do that?
A three hour bus ride Southeast from Tel Aviv takes you, after an ear-popping descent past the lowest point on earth, to the Idan junction. The bus station consists of two concrete and metal shelters in the middle of a desert along Israel’s Highway 60. Hitching a ride for 6kms down the road brings you to Idan proper, a tiny Moshav of low lying buildings and tall date palms. Arriving at around 2pm and the town was eerily quiet, the only store we found was closed and, strangely, sported a Thai flag. A friendly driver in the Moshav, a hebrew word for a community of independent farmers, brought us to Kayema Farm, past an entrance guarded by a metal sculpture of a goat-headed man. So began my two weeks of farm work in the middle of the Arava Desert.
The farmhouse was a small complex of about seven structures. One house where the farm’s owners, Adi, Ynon, and their five children, live. Two train cars converted into dorms, a trailer where Yael, the dairy manager lives, a white building containing the boys’ dorm and a storage room, and a large dairy adjoined to a small bar room with a patio, large wooden table, and outdoor kitchen attached. Three volunteers, including myself, arrived that day, joining five who were already settled in. After unpacking I was taken to the store, which I discovered is only open from 4pm to 8pm every day.
The Thai flag, it turns out, was for the nearly 1000 Thai farm workers living in Idan, taking advantage of a 5 year working visa program for Thai farm labourers to come to Israel. Declan, an Aussie volunteer, told me that nearly all veggies and dry goods were supplied for us by the farm. The store was mostly a place to grab beer and small treats. Finding a few fresh eggplants and the means for tomato sauce in our kitchen I worked on a pasta for the other volunteers. We ate and got to know each other a little better, at that point it was 1 Aussia, 3 Americans, 1 Israeli, 1 Swede, 2 Brazilians, and myself, I went to bed at about 9pm. Work, I was told, began at 7am for the boys.
While the girls spent their days in the dairy, making cheese from fresh goat’s milk, the boys were driven by Yinon to the Goat Shed and Chicken Coop, at the end of a large farming complex about 5kms outside of Idan. The drive took us past acres of greenhouses producing peppers, tomatoes, melons, and other summer veggies mostly for export to Europe. We were dropped off at the Goat Shed, a large high-roofed structure holding four pens of mature goats plus three little ones for the babies and kids. Along with two other volunteers I was sent to the chicken coop where about 2,000 laying hens produced roughly 1,800 organic eggs daily.
God bless the people who do egg work. Not so much hard as monotonous, picking, cleaning, sorting, and packing eggs. It was a dull but simple and straightforward introduction to farm work. When the day ended at 1:30 I scored about 10 eggs and brought them back to our kitchen for a dinner of Spanish Tortilla. We were driven back by Mosh, the hardworking, no-nonsense farm manager, and greeted by a huge lunch featuring about four different salads, perfectly cooked yellow rice, and a rich hearty vegetable soup. All prepared under the direction of Adi. The rest of the day was ours.
Days passed like that, work in the mornings, lunch in the early afternoon and then about six hours spent relaxing, cooking, or hiking in the desert before bed. Gaining access to some of the farm’s amazing cheese, sold in Israel under the brand Ofaimme, we played around with some fun dishes. Pasta in a labneh-goat cheese sauce, fried eggplant medallions stuffed with goat cheese, or, for breakfast, a grilled sandwich of za’atar, tomato, and, you guessed it, goat cheese. For our last shabbat dinner the volunteers prepared a bit of a feast. Homemade challah bread, Adi’s recipe using spelt (so good), mashed potatoes, fried rice with cabbage, and shakshouka made with eggplant and mushrooms. Though almost exclusively vegetarian we still ate very very well at Kayema Farm.
Work varied as well. I moved from eggs to cleaning goat pens, more fun than it sounds mostly because of the dry light dirt. I helped lay down barley seeds in the farm’s greenhouse, the milking goats ate nutrient rich barley shoots every day. I helped Yinon prepare a lunch of fresh foccacia and shakshouka for a visiting tour group. And, on my last day, I got to help Mosh wrangle goats, holding them in place while he trimmed their hooves.
Animals were also an omnipresent part of our lives on the farm. The farmhouse held a pen for the roughly ten male goats kept as breeding stock, another pen for three rather ornery horses, a cacophony of roosters, and one duck looking very out of place in the arid landscape. The best part, though, was the dogs. Adi and Yinon kept one dog, Marley, but we usually had about three dogs from the village hanging out with us in the evenings. Our favourite was Keshet, a long-faced, sweethearted gold dog with a propensity for chasing cars.
Hiking in the badlands was something very special. A two minute walk from the farm takes you to a gate in the Moshav’s fence, built to keep out hyenas and other desert fauna. From there craggy hills of sandy dirt seem to stretch on forever. Clear, but far in the distance were the mountains of the Negev desert to the west and Jordan to the east. Running and jumping over the soft, crumbly hills, furrowed by the desert’s occasional rain, was a pure and simple joy. The softness of the ground made pain seem impossible as we bounded from hill to hill.
My strongest memory of that time, though, came when a local friend of ours named Noam drove us out to the local Mitzpe (lookout) which, at the end of a ten-mile desert road, overlooked a wide gorge and the Jordanian border. The view itself was incredible, but the drive took us past acres and acres of farms. Massive greenhouses that stretched north and south from the lookout all the way to the horizon. I was floored that in the barren wasteland around us people could possibly think to farm. Yet here, plain in steel and canvas sheeting, was the evidence that not only have people tried to make this desert bloom, they’ve succeeded.
Oh and also, it was totally free. Try wwoofing guys.