Mario Levi: In my life I have always been searching for the truth, and through my exploration, I found that conventional agriculture is a tragedy for the earth.
Some have a way with people. Others have a way with the land. Organic farming pioneer Mario Levi has a way with both.
At 81 years old and with plans for the next 50, his name has become a legend among international large-scale growers, small-scale farmers and young American university students.
He doesn’t speak much, yet small gestures – a squinty smile, a wave of his expressive Italian hands, a ride in the red tractor that matches his cheeks – allows one to feel an immediate closeness to him and the culture that surrounds organic food.
“In my life I have always been searching for the truth, and through my exploration, I found that conventional agriculture is a tragedy for the earth,” Levi told ISRAEL21c during a visit to his home on Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu where he settled after fleeing a Nazi regime from Trieste, Italy 64 years ago.
After researching the basic principles behind organic farming for several years, Levi started a 20-acre farm in 1974.
“When I said I was going to grow organic agriculture, everyone thought I was cuckoo,” he chuckles as he motions circles around his head. But over 30 years later, the great-grandfather is now recognized as Israel’s pioneer of organic agriculture.
Although today, he may receive criticism by more ideologically extreme organic farmers who forego using farming machinery to increase their yield, Mario does not adhere to this philosophy. He has over 950 mouths to feed on his kibbutz, therefore his purpose is to produce as many vegetables as possible without disrupting the environment.
“He is excellent in guiding people to increase their yield and is very orthodox with his rules and never strays from them – ever – even if it means losing an entire crop,” claims Ron Shalem, 38, environmental activist and new kibbutz member.
“Mario is a generalist with a lot of experience. He can look at a field and can tell you anything about it. He feels the ground and he feels the plants. He can look at a tomato and tell you if it is healthy and can read into what the soils needs if it is not. He’s a master of industrial organic agriculture, because really, no other system can supply the quantity of food that that is needed in areas with a large population, such as the US,” adds Shalem.
For this reason, large-scale American industrial growers have sent Levi to the US for consultation in regions surrounding Santa Cruz, the Imperial Valley, Texas and the Rio Grande.
“In this business it is forbidden to keep secrets,” Levi says, while in the setting of the kibbutz dining hall, as he feasts on homegrown red cabbage salad.
His expertise draws volunteers to the kibbutz from the United States – more than 150 per year – who come hoping to have a chance to work alongside the legend that they heard about back home.
Arie Wolf, 21, from New Jersey took a semester from school to learn the basics of organic farming with Levi. After a day in the field, Wolfe would come to the dining hall beaming and muttering about how fantastic it was to work alongside Levi, while sharing tales like urban legends to new arrivals. His dinner plate was full of the vegetables he helped grow.
For the remainder of the year, Wolfe went on to teach his newly acquired skills at Teva, an environmental education group for schoolchildren in New York.
Another student Julie Schneider, 20, from Atlanta, Georgia was in Israel during the semester break from Maryland University. Unlike many of the other students who come to the kibbutz requesting to work with Levi, she hadn?t yet heard of him and knew very little about organic food.
“I’m so impressed, I don’t have a garden at home yet, but I will probably buy more organic produce back in the US,” she says.
It is not only American volunteers who come to learn with Levi. On most days, there are also young Israeli women and men who have heard about him through his work at the Israel Bio-organic Agriculture Association (IBOAA), which was founded in 1982.
As a co-founder and ex-head of the organization, Mario was able to spread his organic mission to large food distributors like Agrexco that now sends planes full of organic peppers and tomatoes to cities like New York, Chicago and Miami.
“Mario gave Agrexco the ability to cultivate the ground for organic agriculture,” says Eitan Kurant, manager of Agrexco’s organic produce department. “Mario is a very dear person to us and is always smiling.”
“He is God’s deputy,” notes Haim Keller, Agrexco’s PR spokesman who says that thanks to Levi’s help, organic agriculture has become one of the fastest growing sectors in agriculture in Israel. Today, 400 farmers in Israel cultivate about 6,000 hectares of organically grown crops.
After all his years of service, Levi tends to stay close to his own 170 acres of kibbutz farmland. He wakes at 6 am. for morning prayers and retires by 1 am. allowing him to see both the sun rise from behind the pink Jordanian mountains to the East and the sun set into the frame of palm trees and Mount Gilboa to the West.
Sde Eliyahu may not look like a religious kibbutz, since male members often trade a traditional yarmulke for cotton-brimmed hats that block the intense Beit Shean Valley sun, but for them a full day’s ritual includes three daily prayer meetings where they pray for things such as health, healing, sustenance, rain and the land.
As Levi ends our meeting for the afternoon prayer, he says he is hopeful about the future, “It will take a few generations to fix the damages that we are doing to the world with chemicals,” he says resolutely, “But, it will be fixed.”