Buckeyes and sabras: Agritech brings Israel and Ohio closer together

Much of the agricultural cooperation between Ohio and Israel lies the field of cattle production.It’s almost become a cliché about how Israel has made the desert bloom. But the fact remains that Israel’s agritech developments in the arid Negev region …

Much of the agricultural cooperation between Ohio and Israel lies the field of cattle production.It’s almost become a cliché about how Israel has made the desert bloom. But the fact remains that Israel’s agritech developments in the arid Negev region have revolutionized farming – and smart farmers worldwide keep track of the latest innovations coming out of southern Israel.

The Ohio-based Negev Foundation recently decided that it’s about time that farmers in their home state learn the tricks of the trade from their Israeli counterparts.

Thanks primarily to the Ohio-Israel Agriculture Initiative spearheaded by the 13-year-old foundation, farmers and researchers in both locations are collaborating on projects ranging from developing mini-dairies to the latest in drip irrigation – all with the goal of promoting trade and sharing expertise between the Buckeye state and the land of milk and honey.

“Sometimes it seems as though Ohio farmers are still working in the 19th century – in terms of technique,” Negev Foundation founder Sam Hoenig told ISRAEL21c. “And Israel is definitely deep into the 21st century in it agritech and sciences. We were aware of so many opportunities, ways that Israel and Ohio could both benefit.”

Despite the first Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s warning in the early 1950s that it was imperative to settle and develop the region, but the early 1980s the Negev – which comprises some 66% of the land – was largely left a backwater area, with a population of less than 12% of the country’s total inhabitants.

According to Hoenig, the Negev Foundation was formed as a fund-raising organization to help develop the Negev into a flourishing economically productive region. But it soon expanded its mission to promote innovative business ventures and the transfer of successful Israeli applied desert agritechnology abroad.

The Negev Foundation believes that the essence of Israel’s agritech success lies in great part to the innovation and expertise displayed by applied desert research, and they feel that Ohio agriculture industry can benefit by close collaboration. So in 2002, the foundation launched the Ohio-Israel Agriculture and Rural Development Initiative.

With the help of Senator George Voinovich of Ohio, the Negev Foundation brought together government, academic and business entities, trade associations and growers to improve agricultural trade and R&D ties between Ohio and Israel.

“We have a great relationship with Senator Voinovich – he’s been to Israel several times over his career, first when he was mayor of Cleveland, and then as governor of Ohio,” said Hoenig.

“While governor in the 1990s, he led an agricultural mission of 40 people, and a lot of excitement and energy was generated, but very little follow-up. So we met with him and spoke about ways to enhance the relationship between Ohio and Israel. Ohio’s number one industry is agriculture, and the state is fourth in the country in agricultural production – it generates over $85 billion worth of revenue.”

The Ohio-Israel initiative began with sharing agricultural research and continued with a trade mission to Israel by a group of Ohio farmers in February 2004. John Stevenson, who owns a 400-acre farm in the Circleville, Ohio area, went on last year’s trade mission. The group visited Israeli feedlots and experimental agricultural stations.

Stevenson told the Associated Press he was surprised at the resourcefulness of the Israelis in dealing with less-than-ideal agricultural conditions, citing an Israeli technology which converts waste from fruit into feed for their cattle.

“You would not think they would have the feed, but they do,” he said.

In a further sign at the close relationship between Israel and Ohio, The Farm Science Review – the largest agritech trade show of its kind featuring companies and displays from all over the US featured an official Israel agri-pavillion at last month’s show.

“It was the first foreign country to have a pavilion there in its history of over 80 years,” said Hoenig. “There were 15 Israeli companies that were represented.”

Among the ideas and technologies that were displayed which may lead to further collaborations include:

* Pladot – Mini dairy processing equipment

A dairy processing technology manufacturer, Pladot, which has already sold small-scale on-site dairy processors (for cheeses, yogurts, butters) to dairy operations elsewhere in the US, would like to expand to Ohio. “We gave them the opportunity to expand their business into the core of the dairy production states,” said Hoenig.

* Automatic cattle feeder systems

– Recent interest in an automatic calf feeder system by Ohio cattlemen who saw it at Kibbutz Revivim has led the Negev Foundation to examine its potential in the US. The device utilizes American, Dutch and Israeli components and Israeli software. It senses animals in chutes, monitors intake, maintains records and prevents overfeeding. Gavish, the manufacturer, an Israeli company that manufactures software and equipment to monitor and control greenhouse, dairy farm and fish farm operations, would like to establish a US operation in Ohio for engineering, software development and marketing. The automatic calf feeder system, in commercial use in Israel, would be their first US project.

*Botanical fungicide

An Israel company, Biomor, has tested a botanical fungicide on crops in Israel and in Wooster, Ohio. The organic pesticide is made from plant extracts and is seen as a possible replacement for manufactured pesticides. It is used on tomatoes during harvest, wine grapes and other applications. Based on promising test results, the foundation is examining the possibility of registering the pesticide with the Environmental Protection Agency and conducting additional field tests next summer.

Another positive effect for the Ohio economy to all the information sharing and cooperation is the number of Israeli companies who are interested in business opportunities in the state.

According to Hoenig, Solbar Industries Inc., which produces soy proteins, are negotiating to open a factory in the northeast Ohio town of Orrville. If the deal goes through, the company could invest up to $20 million and employ as many as 250 workers, he said.

In February 2006, a group of Ohio farmers will return to Israel to meet with Israeli farmers and study how they grow their crops, with an emphasis on Israeli innovative irrigation and fertilization technologies. Then in May, Ohio farmers will display their products at an agricultural exposition in Tel Aviv.

“If it works out, we’ll have an Ohio pavilion at Israel’s Agritech show. No other state in the US has had a project like this,” said Hoenig.

“We act as facilitators to bring economic opportunity to the Negev – we’re a matchmaker.” And for Ohio and Israel, it looks like the beginning of a long, fruitful relationship.