A) barren land
D) flourishing food forest
E) pumpkin pie
If you answered A, B, or C, I would normally agree with you, but you are wrong when it comes to Beer Sheva and the Israeli Negev. And if you answered E, you are just hungry and need to go find yourself a snack. The answer is in fact D) food forest, and that is exactly the permaculture-based green revolution the Israeli non-profit Earth’s Promise is promoting in Beer Sheva.
As part of the Land and Environment Track at the MASA Global Leadership Summit, a group of us journeyed to Beer Sheva to learn more about the city’s urban agriculture endeavors. With the intention of cutting out fossil fuels from the food system by making produce local, Earth’s Promise is working on three main projects: the Kalisher Community Garden, an adjacent food forest, and a commercial urban farm.
Turns out, most of the crops grown on the desert land are Ethiopian crops such as a plethora of corn varieties (which I learned are to make popcorn- a staple food at every Ethiopian Jewish event ranging from bris, weddings, bar-mitzvahs, and funerals), gomen (a collared green eaten with Injera), gat (a chewy upper that is like natural Viagra and is illegal in the US), spicy peppers, and more traditional crops like potato, tomato, and eggplant. One lesson these families quickly learned is that the growing season is shorter in Beer Sheva than in Northern Ethiopia due to steeper temperature dips in winter.
From a sustainability lens though, one must ask how sustainable the Kalisher Community Garden can be when the non-profit supplies irrigation and seeds while the city pays for the land. To achieve true sustainability from all facets of the word, the community garden would need to be able to function perfectly on its own without the financial or physical help of Earth’s Promise. The organization claims to be slowly stepping back as the years go on and helping to establish different annual fundraising events to help the garden stand on its own two feet. Already, the garden receives compost from the municipality’s collection program.
I would have loved to meet some of the tenants of the garden, or to find out about actual food yields and community engagement levels, but unfortunately our tour was running out of time and only scratched the surface on the wave of impact Earth’s Promise is trying to achieve.
To start, they decided that all produce would be organic so as not to foster pesticide use near densely populated living spaces. Another permaculture concept can be seen in their weeding practice- the farmers intentionally leave some weeds because it creates a mini-ecosystem and living space for insects and pests. There’s a system of checks and balances with intercropping—planting two different types of crops next to each other. If there is a pest problem, the insects won’t eat an entire row of crops (if pests like beet leaves and not carrots and the two crops are inter-planted then they will get confused and go away). Planting the crops together protects against crop devastation.
Every Wednesday by a rest stop the urban farms sells its food for profit at an affordable price. They only grow crops that are in-season, working with the elements, despite the wants of the community. Hopefully, residents will be conditioned into learning the season for different fruits and vegetables as well. The volunteers at Earth’s Promise also work with individuals in the community- for example, they give some of their crops to an Ethiopian woman in the neighborhood who makes chutneys and jams. Earth’s Promise sells these products at their market and gives the woman 100% of the profits.
Although not all of the work at Earth’s Promise is completely sustainable when looking at the existence of the farms and community garden in the future (think money), their methods are completely environmentally-friendly and their ideas are innovative and gravity-defying. It is not easy to turn sand and rocks into viable land, and then giving that land to the more underserved members of the community. The theme of the MASA Summit was leadership, and Earth’s Promise definitely embodies the qualities of leadership within a community.