Growing Crops in the Desert

October 1, 2005

Nissim Sroussi, a specialist in arid land cultivation and a second-generation Israeli farmer, moved to the Gaza Strip twenty-seven years ago. His expertise proved useful for the growth of the settlement he founded, Gan Or, and ultimately for the success of Jewish growers throughout the Gaza Strip, whose produce, today, is shipped all over Israel, Europe, and the U.S.

Sroussi's work in arid-land farming has taken him far beyond the borders of the Gaza Strip. In the Gobi Desert of China, he demonstrated how a drip-irrigation system developed in Israel could be used to grow grapes, apples, peaches, and pears. In Central Africa--in Zaire, Senegal, Mali, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Cameroon--Sroussi has worked with the World Bank, UNESCO, USAID, and other international organizations to train local farmers.

A yearlong project on the Hopi Indian reservation in Arizona was, in many ways, the most complicated, Sroussi says. The Hopi tribal leader visited Israel and was amazed by the agriculture. Sroussi, who was on the agriculture faculty of the Hebrew University, was invited to live on the reservation and teach his farming techniques. At first, he says, "it was very difficult to convince them to work with our ways, because ... the farming there is a part of their religion.... Everything is by dance and by praying....

"I came with tractors to sow the land. They said, Wow, you cannot go with steel on the earth. It's a sin. They used to plough with sticks. We brought a complete irrigation system, with computers even. They said, If you put the valves and open the water whenever you want, when are we going to dance? They used to wait for the monsoons and dance for the monsoons.

"I had to get into their minds to convince them to cooperate with us.... We just took a small land, forty acres, and we made a pilot, to show them what we can grow in our ways. We [both] started cropping. They have their field. I have my field. And we put corn in both fields and tomatoes and cherry tomatoes and cucumbers. And, after a few months, my corn is about a meter and a half, two meters, and their corn is very small. And they didn't know what to do."

Slowly, Nissim says, he converted the Hopi to new farming techniques, though the project ended prematurely when funding ran out. After a year on the reservation, however, Sroussi says that the Native Americans called him an uncle, so he felt that he had succeeded.