Stepping out of a greenhouse alongside the Dead Sea, Naftali Lazarovich holds three of the juiciest bell peppers he can find – orange, yellow and red – tearing into them with his hands to offer slices to guests.
“The green ones don’t have as much flavor,” says the researcher, explaining why they are less popular.
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The mouth-watering produce grown here in the Arava region, between the Negev desert and the Mediterranean, is popular in both Israeli and European markets. What makes it unusual is that it thrives in the middle of one of the most arid places in the world, where only weeds should grow, not cantaloupe, tomatoes or bell peppers.
Making this feat possible is clever usage of a very limited water supply, with not a drop wasted and a high-tech system that constantly monitors the plants to make sure their needs are met.
“It only rains 20 millimeter a year here, less than one inch,” said Lazerovich, whose Central and Northern Arava Research and Development Center is supported by Ben-Gurion University. “That’s nothing.”
The irrigation comes up to the surface from ground water located six feet below, in this region close to the Jordan River and Dead Sea. But the margin for error is extremely small. Because of the arid climate, even one day without water will lead many of the crops to start withering. “The bank account is very small,” he says.
In an area with such arid conditions as this, the rain is not just inconsequential, it can even bring harm when it finally does arrive. Lazarovitch explains that when rain seeps into the greenhouse, it deposits saline into the root zone around the plants, harming the water uptake. He says farmers in the region have taken to irrigating during rainfall just to flush the salt out of the root zone.
There’s An App for That
Walking along a row of tomato plants, Lazerovitch points out a sophisticated set of electric sensors that constantly measure moisture to provide the proper balance.
Lazerovitch can get readings any time of day, simply by checking a readout sent to his smartphone. “I’m checking the water in, and the water out, so I can see the uptake of the plant,” he said.
“We use mainly [Utah-based] Campbell Scientific data loggers and sensors designed for environmental studies but also for agriculture. We manipulate some of the sensors so they will be optimal for our needs.”
A farmer’s job in this region, which desperately needs economic development, means coping with low humidity and high ultraviolet radiation, since it is so far below sea level and there is so much air to absorb it.
The techniques being perfected here in the desert are also being shared with area farmers to help them succeed and expand their output. In addition, findings are being published in journals such as “Irrigation Science and Water Management” to help agriculture thrive in other arid regions.