Two years ago, a group of farmers and environmentalists founded Organic Israel with the twin goals of improving environmental and food quality in Israel, and getting organic produce to low-income families.
“Then the 7th of October came,” says CEO Guy Rilov, “and we decided to shift all efforts to our brother farmers in the otef,” the Gaza border communities.
And so was born First Aid for Wounded Farms.
The Hamas attacks devastated farmers and farms in this region, which supplies an estimated 70 percent of Israel’s tomatoes, 30% of potatoes and 25% of carrots, among many other vegetables and fruits, as well as milk.
“A lot of people don’t know it, but the production of vegetables and fruits in the otef is crucial for food security in Israel,” says Rilov, citing tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, avocados and other popular items that are grown there.
The possibility of shortages and even food insecurity is real. Farmers in the south were murdered, injured or kidnapped. Others have been called up to military reserve duty.
The terrorists stole or damaged agricultural equipment and vehicles – such as computerized irrigation systems, packing machines and tractors – and burned fields and dairy sheds. Many cows died in the fires or because they couldn’t be milked.
At Kibbutz Be’eri, one of the hardest hit locations, the manager of the avocado groves was killed. Right after the funeral, his brother went to the 250-acre grove to repair the damaged irrigation system. Otherwise, the trees would die in this desert environment.
Some of the farmlands are still in danger zones, and many of the foreign workers on which these farms depend have left the country.
Yet vegetables need to be harvested, packed and shipped, fields need to be prepared for the next season, and new crops must be planted as autumn progresses.
“We are small and don’t have a lot of funds, so we started by sending volunteer agronomists to map the needs of the 25 organic farms, large and small, in the otef,” says Rilov, 64, a farmer who helped write the international organic ethics code.
“It was very complicated even to talk to them in the beginning because they had to leave their farms and started to come back only days and weeks later.”
One farmer in Zikim told Organic Israel that his foreign workers are sleeping in a city about 60 miles to the north each night because they are scared to stay on the border. The farmer was struggling to pay for their daily commute, so the organization covered this cost for the month of October.
Another reported that the terrorists burned his electric vehicle that he’d used to transport workers. Organic Israel is working to get him a new one.
First aid without bureaucracy
The Israeli government will eventually provide some compensation for farm damages, Rilov says.
“But government wheels turn slowly and we wanted to move fast to provide small-scale ‘first aid’ without bureaucracy. We don’t replace the government but they are aware of what we do,” he explains.
“Our core team is three people: one agronomist, one fundraiser, and one coordinator – that’s me — speaking with the farmers. We also have a wonderful team of volunteers who know how to approach the farmers with sensitivity,” he says.
“We check if the needs are real, then we try to raise money to pay suppliers for specific needs. We raise money and immediately spend it; we don’t keep a penny. We built a tax-deductible platform for Israeli and US donations, with help of a volunteer in the high-tech industry.”
Mindful of being transparent with donors, which include the Wexner Foundation, Organic Israel pays suppliers rather than the farmers.
For example, money donated toward a new computer irrigation system was sent to directly to the manufacturer.
Most Israeli farms are in desperate need of volunteers to harvest and do other agricultural work. Organic Israel cannot meet this need but puts the farmers in touch with organizations providing volunteers.
Rilov says he hopes the project’s volunteers in Israel and the United States can raise sufficient funds to extend Organic Israel’s assistance to farmers in the north who were evacuated due to missiles from Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Rilov’s own farm, Makura, in the Carmel Mountains, is being tended by his son. Since 1989, he has been cultivating organic olives, wine grapes, avocados, citrus and other subtropical fruits. Makura also has an educational center that teaches children about organic farming and environmental protection.
For more information or to donate to Organic Israel’s First Aid for Wounded Farms, click here.