Interview: Nurit Levy, www.israelagri.com
During our annual January Arava R&D Open Day, I interviewed Shachar Rassel, Hazera Sales’ Manager for the Arava and Ramat Hanegev, at the Hazera pavilion.
Shachar said that bell peppers used to be the Arava’s principal crop but that since the crisis that occurred a few years ago caused by factors such as prices and overproduction, the growers were forced to seek new crops. Nonetheless, peppers still head the field there.
Shachar explains: ”At Hazera our main objective is to adapt our varieties to the harsh Arava environment and to specific global market requirements, but also to develop ground breaking products. The three main markets for our peppers are Russia (most of our peppers sent there are from the Arava), America and Western Europe.”
This year, with a view to regulating the market and reducing supply, the Agriculture Ministry offered growers an opportunity to vary crops in exchange for a grant of 70% of their investment. This reduced the supply of peppers to Russia by 35% and increased prices.
To illustrate, it takes ten to fourteen days for peppers to reach their principle markets in Russia, meaning that the varieties Hazera grows in the Arava must have particularly long shelf lives. Demand varies sharply according to colour, with red occupying 70% of the market, yellow 20% and orange 10%.
The change prompted the introduction of additional Hazera Arava products especially adapted to the region: tomatoes – cluster type tomatoes such as Olympicus, Cherry tomatoes of various colours such as, Whitney, Summer Sun and Ruti, packaged under the brand name Nature’s Sweets.
Other Hazera Arava products, mainly for the local market, include kohlrabi, marrows, eggplants, melons and watermelons. The Arava melon growing seasons are spring – spring harvest, autumn – autumn harvest and winter – winter harvest. Hazera has adapted its melon varieties to both grower and market needs and in the spring offers the Ra’anan variety (a Galia type variety) and the 64062 variety (Orange Ananas type), and in the winter the Gina variety (Galia type).
A little bit about Shachar – unlike other occupations, his combines both sales and agronomic input. Shachar says ‘The work is hard but interesting because it enables me to ‘live’ the market. You are not detached from the grower after sales; you are with him all the way. This includes support when he experiences growing difficulties.’ While I was interviewing Shachar, a local grower approached him happily to tell him that the last pepper variety Shachar had sold him was the only one he was growing and that it had reached the ‘large’ category. The grower was referring to Hazera’s new Tzalaf variety which is typically an attractive red colour and suitable for quality markets where the customer requires a pepper weighing 180-220 gm. Tzalaf is a quality blocky fruit for harvesting at the end of the season. It is of moderate size and suitable for exporting to the quality markets of Western Europe. The new variety is highly resistant and affords the grower the twin advantages of both yield and quality.
Shachar lives in Central Israel at Kibbutz Givat Brenner, some two hours away from the Arava, which he visits two to four times a week, depending on how the season is progressing. The pepper selling season is short, from May to June and he must visit all the relevant growers during that time. For the rest of the year he provides agronomic services to his clients.
Shachar’s other beat, Ramat Hanegev, mainly produces regular and cherry tomatoes. Notably, Ramat Hanegev produces some 70% of Israel’s cherry tomatoes.
Ramat Hanegev’s predominant variety is Hazera’s Shiren cluster cherry tomatoes which boast excellent shelf life- another Hazera Arava products. Until about ten years ago, there was little demand for cherry tomatoes in Israel and only about 30% of the crop was earmarked for the local market. Currently, 30% is exported and the remainder is consumed in Israel.
Additional marginal, mainly winter, crops are planted to maintain the fields, improve soil health and prevent pests. These are mainly Cruciferae such as cabbage and cauliflower.
When I asked Shachar about pests he mentioned TMV which has taken hold over the past two years and ruthlessly damages the tomatoes. Currently there is no solution beyond proper sanitation. The pest is most active at high temperatures and in recent months it has caused reduced yields of both regular and cherry tomatoes with corresponding price increases due to reduced supply.
Hazera is investing a great many resources in an attempt to develop resistance to TMV and hopes that a solution will be available soon.
One of the important parameters, together with crop, size, colour and shelf life, is the resistance/ tolerance of various species. A key consideration for growers is whether a particular variety is resistant to disease, viruses and nematodes.
Both in the Arava and Ramat Hanegev, growers use integrated pest control methods which incorporate both natural enemies and pesticides. These methods have proven highly effective.
The winds of change are blowing in the Arava. The reasonable prices obtained by Arava pepper growers reflect a market balance and it is likely that the balance was caused by the considerable reduction in export supply.