The value of touch


One of the most overlooked aspects of Judaism is its obsession with material things. Yes, it’s true that our tradition is full of powerful stories, ideas and values. But those are cerebral. For me, the hidden beauty of Judaism is in the concrete — the things we can touch.

We can talk for hours about the beauty of Shabbat, but it only comes to life when you actually sit down at a Shabbat table and experience it — when you light the candles, bless the wine, wash your hands, touch the challah, sing the songs and feel the holiday. There is no sermon that can replace this experience.

It’s the difference between saying “I love you” and hugging someone you love. 

Every Jewish holiday, from Passover and Shavuot to Purim and Chanukah, “hugs” us with specific rituals. Perhaps the holiday that hugs us the most is the one we’re about to celebrate — Sukkot.

The very root of the holiday is in agriculture, humanity’s most fundamental, tactile, life-giving activity. We use our hands to touch the earth, plant seeds, harvest fruit, feel the rain. In ancient times, the agricultural harvest took place at the beginning of autumn, after which our ancestors would celebrate their abundance and give thanks to God.

It’s extraordinary to think that, today, more than 3,300 years later, Jews all over the world will celebrate Sukkot and do just as our ancestors did — give thanks to God for our harvest. 

Would this incredible continuity have been possible if all we did was tell the story to our kids? I doubt it.

Just like our other holidays, the festival of Sukkot has survived for so long because we bring it to life every year with concrete rituals. We tell the stories, yes, but we integrate them in the rituals. In the case of Sukkot, we tell the stories inside a little hut.

We build these huts to remind us of the temporary dwellings our ancestors built in their fields so they could take advantage of every minute of daylight once the crops were ready to be picked. These huts also remind us of the shelters built by our ancestors as they wandered in the desert after they left Egypt, on their way to the Promised Land.

It’s fitting that the holiday of Sukkot completes the trilogy of the festivals: Passover recalls our liberation from slavery, Shavuot honors the revelation of our holy Torah, and Sukkot represents our ongoing journey toward redemption. First came the freedom, then the blueprint, then the action.

It’s also fitting, then, that Sukkot comes immediately after Yom Kippur. What better way to follow the ambitious promises of the High Holy Days than to commemorate the concrete work our journey requires?

Our ancestors didn’t just worship and argue and pray —– they toiled on the land. They understood that a vision was nothing without the work of our hands.

Ancient Israel was, first and foremost, an agricultural society. Most of the laws, customs and rituals described in the Torah reflect this.   

Sukkot elevates the raw physicality of the land. When we hold in our hands the Four Species — the willow, palm, myrtle and etrog — we’re not honoring a fancy basket from the Pottery Barn. We’re honoring symbols of the land, the original and divine source of our sustenance.

This deep connection with nature, which infuses the festival of Sukkot, has another benefit: It’s the perfect antidote to a modern world where the most important thing we touch is a smartphone. As much as I appreciate the wonders of Google and Facebook, I have to constantly remind myself that it’s all virtual. It’s not a hug.

It’s as if Judaism figured this out 3,300 years ago — humans need to hug. We need to “touch” our stories to make them real and give them lasting meaning.

When you build  your sukkah this year and surround yourself with material symbols of what sustained our ancestors, you’ll get a good idea of why our tradition has endured for so long.

That alone is worth our gratitude. 

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

My city isn’t a tawdry reality TV show


Every few years, Salinas grabs national media headlines for the wrong reasons: Police killings of criminal suspects caught on camera. Or maybe a sensational courtroom drama like that of our local convicted murderer Jodi Arias. Each story draws the major corporate media outlets to town, eager to shoehorn some reference to Salinas native John Steinbeck into the narrative.

Maybe we look like a real-life version of a tawdry reality TV show to them.

It wasn’t always like this. I’ve covered the town for more than 20 years, largely as a features writer and columnist. I also served time as an education and city reporter for two local publications, The Monterey County Herald and the Salinas Californian. Other local media outlets covering the town include the Monterey County Weekly, the NBC/ABC affiliate KSBW-TV, CBS affiliate KION-TV, and Univision affiliate KSMS-TV.

Once upon a time the juiciest national story about Salinas might have involved an E. coli outbreak linked to one of our produce giants. The town has changed, as violent crime reports in town have fed the media’s appetite for sensational headlines.

Salinas calls itself the Salad Bowl of the World, which sounds like a healthy thing, but our multibillion-dollar lettuce economy is complicated—maybe more complicated than outsiders care to understand—and our struggles are a window into California’s future.

As Silicon Valley is to software, Salinas is to lettuce: We didn’t invent the salad bar, but we introduced the world to bagged salad. We are the model for modern agricultural technology and production. There’s a 90 percent chance that bagged salad you bought for dinner was produced here. But the innovations in lettuce growing, packing, and shipping that brings you a “healthy” meal also includes a lot of unseen hands. And these hands belong mostly to Mexican migrants who make up about 34 percent of our town’s population, according to recent U.S. Census Bureau data.

What do you think happens when one of California’s richest industries conducts business in, and culls its workforce from, a highly concentrated immigrant community? You get changes of the kind that aren’t sensational – and thus are underreported if they are reported at all: the ripple effects in a community of low academic achievement numbers among English language learner students. Or the problems caused by overcrowding and high population density in certain parts of town. Or stories that get reported as something other than what they really are.

For instance, Forbes recently named Salinas the second-least-educated city in America. Media outlets latched onto the story and the study it was based on, and repurposed them as a list of the dumbest towns in the country. Among several indicators, the list factored in the number of available jobs that require a college education.

But really, how unexpected is this? When so much of your workforce is devoted to manual labor, you can bet that there won’t be a load of workers sitting on college diplomas.

When I read those lists, I saw them as a grand insult to the delicate skill and craft of our local farm laborers. 

The idea that Salinas is a dumb town is pretty inaccurate. Harvesting produce doesn’t require an advanced degree, but it’s no job for dummies. Have you ever attempted to pick a strawberry field? I haven’t, but I understand from growing up here the careful technique required not only to pick the produce gently, but also to do it at a rapid fire pace. Our farm workers move fast and efficiently. You have to be smart and know the land to be successful in the fields. Forbes didn’t have the time or just didn’t bother to report that any of this context. 

Ironically, Forbes did have time to host an agriculture technology summit in town recently. Billed as “Reinventing America: The AgTech Summit,” the conference brought together Silicon Valley and Global Ag leaders, many based here in the Salad Bowl, for breakout sessions on the booming AgTech industry. It was an invitation-only event. I mention that because it shows the contrasting sides of this town’s image. We are uneducated enough to make top 10 lists, but somehow industrially sophisticated enough to host big business think tank sessions.

In this dichotomy and others, Salinas may provide a window into the future of this state. We are a rural community steeped in Old West tradition (we host the biggest and oldest rodeo in the state). At the same time, the town is changing, with its economic and cultural divide widening by the year. And Salinas, according to a recent study, was one of the most segregated cities in the nation. For that study, professors at Brown and Florida State University created a dissimilarity index that identifies the percentage of one group that would have to move into a different neighborhood to eliminate segregation; Salinas had a 60.9 percent white-Latino dissimilarity rate, the 21st highest number in the country. Combine our modern social challenges with our old-school agricultural labor practices and our recent emergence as a Silicon Valley bedroom community, and you have a town that offers a bit of everything that people relate to the California experience – sunshine, soil, and sync.

That’s part of what makes covering news in Salinas a tough gig. Everything is sneaky complex. The gang violence that generates so many local headlines isn’t the result of a reckless immigrant population, as Donald Trump would have you believe. It’s a condition that grew out of many decades of cultivating an impoverished and underserved migrant community. Yes, Salinas has poverty, but it’s also a place where rents are so high that sometimes two or three families must pack into a single apartment unit to afford a place to live and survive. During the harvest, these families can work 10-to-12-hour shifts, six days a week to provide for their children. Those children in turn sometimes suffer from the unintentional neglect of busy working parents. This makes them vulnerable to the streets.

Local media does what it can to tell these stories. Investigative journalist Julia Reynolds recently published the book Blood in the Fields: 10 Years inside California’s Nuestra Familia Gang, that analyzed the emergence of one of the most sophisticated criminal organizations in the U.S. It also shed light on efforts from community members and law enforcement in the fight to curb gang violence. 

But for the most part, gang violence is something that is understood only on the surface by locals, and is never portrayed with any complexity by national media. And that leads to a lot of misunderstanding about the town’s image and identity. Largely, that this town is unsafe and people are in danger of violence on every corner. 

It’s tough to recover from the blow of bad media coverage every few years. (It’s certainly not good for economic development). This town is still learning how to adapt to reputational blows. People do their best to shrug it off and carry on. 

I like to keep it positive and remind my neighbors about something John Steinbeck said late in his life, right before he decided he wanted to be buried in his hometown. 

“Not everyone has the good fortune to be born in Salinas.”

Marcos Cabrera is the public information officer for the Alisal Union School District. He is a founding member of the theater company Baktun 12. This essay is part of Salinas: California's Richest Poor City, a special project of Zócalo Public Square and the California Wellness Foundation

 

Technology offers solutions to tomorrow’s agriculture problems


This story originally appeared on The Media Line.

Ten billion people. That is the number of mouths that farmers will have to feed in another two decades. In order to do this food production needs to increase by 70%.

“In recent years, due to the over usage of soils there are more problems with insects and diseases. At the same time, there is increased regulation on the usage of chemicals,” Yuval Fradkin, the head of Futura Graft told The Media Line. “(Modern) requirements lead to a point where you ask the plant to be some kind of super plant. On the one hand you ask it to provide the needs of the farmer and the market. At the same time you ask the plant to fight all the other problems in order to grow.”

Futura Graft were one of twelve companies speaking at a recent conference called Agrivest, offering new technologies for agriculture. Futura Graft’s solution to the twin conundrums of increased food production and simultaneous reduction of the usage of harmful pesticides, is the application of robotics to an existing technique known as grafting. Grafting involves taking the roots from one plant and fusing them with the green stalk, or scion, of another, giving the plant the properties of both.

“This is not something that we invented. The Chinese used to do it thousands of years ago,” Fradkin points out. What Futura Graft are offering which is new is a reduction in the time spent grafting the rootstock to the scion, a process which is time consuming and requires numerous workers. “We are just taking (grafting) and making it more advanced, with the ability to deal with more problems than they used to do in traditional grafting.”

This will benefit “the population of the world, food production in general,” says Fradkin. If humanity is going to feed an additional 2.3 billion people by the half way point of this century, then new solutions are likely to be necessary.

But increasing the amount of food that mankind could produce was not the only salvation on offer at AgriVest 2015. “Imagine sugar which is twice as sweet as sugar – that is what Doux Matok offers,” said Eran Baniel, in a slight French accent, as he addressed the audience during the conference. Seeking to help curb the rise of diabetes and obesity, two health problems which health professionals have warned are looming health crises in the West, the startup offered to reduce the amount of sugar consumers ate by “cheating their taste receptors” into believing a food was twice as sweet as it actually was

Doux Matok’s solution was based in chemistry. Futura Graft’s in plant cultivation and robotics. Among other startups at the conference were solutions based in data analysis, water filtration, remote sensors, biological cultivation and new techniques for food packaging. Each of the companies was hoping to gain exposure through the conference and attract new investors. Although solutions to the problems of the future were much in discussion, equally important at the conference was money and business potential.

As Baniel said, if you “make wonderful things which are (too) expensive, you’ll get compliments but no business.” Keen to attract money which could be channeled into additional research and development or the patenting of additional lucrative intellectual property rights, Baniel added, “We all talk billions, but in the food and beverage industry it is billions.”

The importance of placing business at the forefront of agri-tech development was acknowledged by Oded Distil, Director of Israel New Tech and Invest in Israel, a branch of the Ministry of Economy.

“At the end of the day it has to be based on pure business rational, otherwise it doesn’t work,” Oded told The Media Line. But he was keen to stress the variables which were behind that rational: the need to grow more food; the requirement to use resources – “land, water, whatever” – more efficiently; and the necessity to reduce the amount of damaging chemicals and pesticides being applied in agriculture.

“The concept and mindset is an extremely important factor that has to go all the way from the consumer to the supplier to the multinational and all the way down to the farmer – everyone has to get the new vision of how things have to be done.”

Although the conference had an international flavor the strength of Israeli ventures amongst the startups, was apparent. “A lot of it comes from our DNA – (in the past) we had to come up with solutions to certain problems… So you would find that throughout the years always we had innovation in this sector,” Oded said. Israel’s tradition of agriculture in a tough environment and the success of its high-tech industry give it an advantage in the growing agri-tech industry. “You’ve got a lot of international interest in this conference because Israel is in this game and… has been for many years.”

“This comes down to the ever recurring question of the startup nation,” believes Oskar Laufer, from Phenome Networks, a data analysis firm which specializes in precision agriculture.

“There are a few well known factors which contributed to this: the availability of adventure capital; the large influx of (educated) Russian immigrants in the 90s; (the) culture of entrepreneurial spirit; the army – there is a lot of people who are developing technology in the army… a whole generation of people developing technology.” This, he explains, blends well with the founding Zionists’ focus on agriculture. “Israel started with very tough agricultural circumstances – not a lot of water, a lot of desert, swamps here a hundred years ago – so the people who lived here were forced to be very inventive.”

Israel resuming some Gaza produce imports halted in 2007


Israel will start buying some fruit and vegetables from the Gaza Strip next week, a partial resumption of imports halted when the Islamist group Hamas took over the Palestinian territory in 2007, Israeli officials said on Thursday.

They said the measure was designed to help a Gaza economy devastated by last year's war with Israel, and to make up for a shortfall in produce from Israeli farmlands left fallow during the current Jewish lunar calendar year in accordance with biblical law.

The move was welcomed by Jamal Abu al-Naja, director of the Gaza Vegetable Production and Export Association, who said he hoped it would help make up farmers losses and eventually encourage working farms to seek bank funding to expand their production.

Some Palestinian farmers stopped cultivating their fields all together or sold their land to housing developers after Israeli markets were closed to them in 2007.

Israel, which has been facing international calls to ease its blockade of Gaza, has been gradually relaxing restrictions on commerce across its fortified border since the July-August war which caused widespread destruction in the enclave.

It has allowed Israeli transit of Gaza-produced vegetables and Palestinian merchants to the West Bank, and for Gaza farmers to bring tractors in via Israel since November.

COGAT, the Israeli military agencies that oversees civilian interaction with Gaza, said a shipment of tomatoes and eggplants would be brought in from the territory on Sunday.

“Future stages are expected to include a wider variety of vegetables, totaling 1,000 to 1,500 tons. Each ton is valued at approximately 3,000 shekels ($750),” COGAT said in a statement, adding that the imports were scheduled to run the duration of the Jewish calendar year that expires in September.

COGAT deals with civilian authorities but shuns Hamas, which seized Gaza in a 2007 civil war with the forces of U.S.-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas and Abbas reconciled last year, giving rise to a Palestinian unity government.

“The steps taken are meant to support the Palestinian population while segregating the Hamas organization, which is a terror entity that prevents the reconstruction of Gaza and uses its resources,” COGAT head Major-General Yoav Mordechai said.

Abu al-Naja from the Gaza Vegetable Production and Export Association said Israeli authorities had already carried out quality tests on tomato, eggplant, cucumber and zucchini samples.

“If implemented, it will help farmers make up for their losses, increase the number of workers and encourage investment in the agricultural sector,” he told Reuters.

This week in Jewish Farming: First frost


Sometime in the early morning hours of Oct. 19, the temperature on the farm dipped down to 30 degrees: first frost. It was a light one. The mercury fell barely below freezing and did not stay there for very long, but it was enough. By the time I arrived at the farm, the eggplant looked like it had been drenched in volcanic ash, and the pepper leaves were hanging limp on the bush.

Farmers don’t typically celebrate the death of their crops, but I’ve been lusting after this moment for months, dreaming of the day when nature starts to put on the brakes and my time isn’t consumed by a relentless battle against weeds fought under an oppressive sun. Frost is the inflection point between the growing season and whatever comes after. And for me, I hope what comes after involves lots of sleeping in.

As the days have grown colder, the only thing dropping faster than my workload is my appetite for it. It’s a quirk of my psychology I’m sure. But even though the workdays are starting later and ending earlier, even though the planting and tilling is done and only the harvesting remains, even though the onerous hands-and-knees weeding of high summer is over and the weather is golden and crisp, I find myself having to fight harder than ever to get up off my butt. I keep telling people that with just three weeks left in the CSA, we’re going to limp to the finish. And I mean it.

My fatigue is bone-deep. And it’s not just a physical exhaustion either, but a mental one. I just don’t want to harvest any more kale, or plunge my hands into icy water to wash the lettuce, or pile up the CSA boxes on the truck and haul them away. I’m over it.

If all this is making you wonder whether I’m a one-season farmer, don’t worry. The feeling is familiar. It happens every fall. After a nice winter hibernation, fueled by some bourbon and butternut squash soup, I’m always ready to climb back on that tractor come springtime. In many ways, it’s the license to winter laziness that drives me through those dog days.

Six months of hard labor is made tolerable — actually, it might even be made sweeter — by the prospect of a winter spent mostly on the couch. But for another three weeks, I’m limping.

Veteran JTA journalist Ben Harris is chronicling his new life as a Connecticut farmer. Read more of his weekly dispatches here.

 

Shmita points to the Torah’s Author


From the medieval Kuzari to Lawrence Kelemen’s Permission to Receive to Aish HaTorah’s “Discovery Seminar,” Orthodox Jews have promoted many arguments to support the idea of the Divine origin of the Torah. Many focus on the impossibility of a Revelatory event witnessed by millions simply being invented later. Others have made the intriguing point that no human-created document would pay so much attention to the failings of its own people and leadership.

Then there’s the Torah Codes nonsense (dissed even by its own promoters) that “equidistant letter sequences” reveal hidden messages that could only have been inserted by a Divine Being.

While I find those approaches interesting, the most compelling argument to me arises from a phenomenon related to this year’s calendar: shmita. The Torah commands us to let our land lie fallow every seventh year; and 5775 is one such year. All agricultural activity is forbidden, and detailed rules govern the consumption and sale of shmita produce.

Leviticus 25:20-22 reassures the Israelites that agricultural rest every seventh year will not cause them to go hungry. In fact, it says, they will enjoy eight years’ worth of crops for every seven calendar years, despite the apparent handicap of periodic forced cessation of agricultural activity.

For centuries, the “bonus crops” idea has been considered a miracle; even today, most traditional Jews interpret it supernaturally, as a sign of God’s benevolence toward those who obey Him. 

But the reward for shmita is not supernatural. It’s completely natural.

As any agronomist will confirm, land planted with the same crop year after year starts to yield ever-smaller harvests. It’s a basic fact of botany that every crop removes specific nutrients from the land, which can only be replenished by planting different crops sometimes, or by periodically letting the land lie fallow altogether.

Other than shmita, the first documented use of fallow land to benefit farming was in ancient Greece in the 5th century BCE. (The Chinese adopted the practice 400 years later.)

But traditional Jews believe God gave us the Torah in the 14th century BCE – nearly a millennium before anyone else was letting their land lie fallow. Shmita adherents attributed the seemingly miraculous bounty of their land to their Torah observance, as none of them knew anything about the interaction of crops with nutrients in the soil.

Of course, many people contend that the Torah is a much more recent document written by human beings. But even that theory supports my argument. There’s a consensus among Biblical critics that the rules of shmita formed part of the “Holiness Code,” which was completed by the 7th century BCE, with some verses significantly older.

So even those who deny the Divinity of the Torah assign the commandment of shmita a date two centuries or more before any similar farming method arose anywhere.

Since the Torah treats shmita as a Heavenly command, with detailed rules about a seven-year cycle and who can eat produce that grows anyway, it seems to be more than a farming tip.

I allow that it’s possible that the Hebrews were just the cleverest farmers around in ancient times, but if the Torah is just a human document, how could any person convince an entire pre-modern agricultural society to start resting their fields every seven years? Why would anybody believe something so counter-intuitive. Of course, once the system got going and people saw the additional yields, they may have continued it, but shmita had to start somewhere. 

It’s not complete proof that the Torah is divine, but it does raise questions that even the most hardened atheist would have to think about. 

And for people who are looking to explore religious ideas, shmita can be powerful evidence that the Torah is much more than a set of human-authored laws and stories. 

After all, regarding shmita, the Torah tells us that God said, “Do X and you’ll be rewarded.” And our ancestors did X and were rewarded – long before anyone understood why.

That’s evidence enough for me. 

Follow David Benkof on Facebook or Twitter (@DavidBenkof); or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.

Urban beekeeper on a quest to protect nature’s pollinators


Rosa Goudsmit does not take “no” — or even “we’ll see” — for an answer.

The 42-year-old Jewish Dutch native, now living in Silver Lake, keeps a small flock of sheep next to her home, and she is hoping soon to open an “urban kibbutz” a few hundred yards from the Silver Lake reservoir.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, though, Goudsmit was headed to the offices of a major exterminator based in the Westlake neighborhood. Her mission: Persuade the company to consider not killing bees, but instead to use her to help safely transport the insects to a local beekeeper. 

Pulling up in her multipurpose Chevy truck — its uses include transporting her two small children and carrying food for her sheep — Goudsmit was decked out in black Nike exercise pants, a black sleeveless gym shirt and a neon blue Los Angeles Dodgers baseball cap. She was carrying a book titled “The Backyard Beekeeper.” 

Walking confidently into the company’s parking lot, she inquired in Spanish of some employees how many trucks the company uses for bee extermination purposes. Two, she found out. “I hope they use the special vacuums,” she said quietly to herself as she examined one of the trucks. When rendered docile by smoke, bees can safely be sucked into a special bee vacuum and eventually transported to a new hive.

Inside the company’s office, she quickly found a manager who recognized her, presumably from past impromptu negotiation sessions, as this one also appeared to be.

While the manager was busy sorting employees’ mail, Goudsmit jumped right into her pitch: The company, she said, should offer people with a bee problem the option of transporting, rather than killing, the bees.

Goudsmit knows both how to transport bees and is in contact with a handful of other local urban beekeepers who would gladly take them. Goudsmit doesn’t like when bees are fumigated and gassed; she wants them dealt with tenderly, and when an owner isn’t set on having an intrusive hive destroyed, she is willing to help make sure those bees are transported safely so that they can continue to work their magic of honey production and pollination. 

But first she has to convince the exterminators to change, which potentially could lead to a loss of business or, at the very least, some extra work to go out of their way to contact transporters like her. Not an easy sell.

Goudsmit has been involved in beekeeping and safe transportation since 2010, when she used bee stingers to treat arthritis in her back. The bees, she said, reduced her pain so much that she began caring for them for her own medical use and research. Eventually, realizing the magical purpose that bees serve humanity — largely in regard to agriculture — she decided to make it her mission to save the lives of as many as she could.

Her dream of linking beekeepers and bee transporters with exterminators in Los Angeles, would, she said, “probably make Los Angeles the coolest city in the world for bees,” potentially saving countless productive ones from death. 

Another dream for Goudsmit is to give L.A.’s bees the same protection afforded to the pack of coyotes that roam Silver Lake, occasionally attacking people’s dogs and cats. City wildlife officials oppose the trapping and killing of coyotes in most instances.

“The coyotes are protected by the city. They don’t do any good for us,” Goudsmit said. “But the bees that we need to survive? An exterminator can go and gas them — it makes no sense to me. There is something really off-balance here.” As long as bees are not protected, though, her best shot at saving them is convincing exterminators to work with bee lovers like her when they get calls.

At this pest control company, the manager gave her the response that any bottom-line minded businessman would — we don’t do bee transportation. We kill bees. We can’t tell potential customers to not use our service when they want us to come and help them.

Goudsmit, relentless, but with a smile, continued her pitch, walking with the manager into his office. What about when people call and indicate that they’d like the bees removed, not killed? What then?

Very few people who call are asking for removal, he answered, but when they do, he’ll instruct his call operators to refer them to Goudsmit. As he entered her information into the company’s database, she smiled and gave him a hug. Her aggressive yet nonconfrontational, and sweet, form of negotiating may just net her a few clients who want to save bees. More important, though, from her perspective, some bees may be saved.

As Goudsmit prepared to leave the office, she remembered something. Reaching into her bag and pulling out a jar of some of her finest honey (she collects rare types from across California), she gave it to the manager.

The urban bee transporter, it seems, likes to catch her bees with honey. 

For more information on safely transporting bees visit

This week in Jewish farming: The moral quandaries of bunnies


We were out weeding squash last week when Fred came over to say he had to show me something but he feared it would lead to an act of violence.

Regular readers will know Fred is the farm’s sole employee. (I believe the technical term is “farm hand.”) He’s also a devout Hare Krishna, strict vegetarian and devotee of non-violence. With a prelude like that, I knew where this was heading.

Fred led me to a spot in the field, cleared away some brush, and there in a small hole were four or five baby rabbits. Fred and Raul – one of Fred’s spiritual fellow travelers and an occasional presence at the farm – were busy cooing over their find. I was completely unmoved. I realize this makes me sound like a heartless ogre, but cute as they were, I had bigger fish to fry (or rabbits to roast, if you like.)

I had seen momma bunny hopping around with her cotton tail (Fred had rather unhelpfully christened her Hare Krishna — get it?), and all I could think about when looking at those little tufts of fur was that rabbits breed like rabbits! Soon there’d be lots of Hare Krishnas running around (a Fred fantasy, I’m sure) and I’m pretty convinced they’re the ones that have been chomping on my snap peas. The babies had to go, and I knew exactly how I was going to do it.

The other regular presence on the farm is my landlord Joe. An Italian immigrant with a thick accent and a penchant for dropping the last syllable of words, Joe is a lifelong farmer, a Catholic and a carnivore. He raises a handful of goats on the farm that he kills with a small knife to the throat and butchers himself. A few weeks back, he asked me if any vendors at the market sell rabbit meat. I didn’t know, but Joe went looking himself and came up empty. I figured presenting him with this find would buy me some goodwill.

When I got back to the field, Fred was outraged at what I had done. “I feel nauseous,” he said, and I felt a wave of guilt wash over me.

As I’ve written several times in this space, I’m not interesting in unleashing hellfire on all the life at my farm that doesn’t serve the needs of my crops. For one thing, there is no such life — everything living on the farm and its environs has its place in the ecosystem, the health of which is indivisible from the health of my vegetables. For another, an arms race in the field would be both futile and ultimately self-defeating. What I’m after is balance, cultivating the various forms of life around me but managing them such that there’s space for the food we grow. Sometimes that means absorbing the hits nature delivers. Other times it’s getting the damn rabbits out of the field.

Giving Joe the bunnies seemed to have met the balance standard. The animals would serve a useful purpose as someone’s dinner. That’s killing, to be sure, but not the wanton kind. It doesn’t foreshadow my rampaging through the woods to find all the bunnies and take their lives, but it is a small measure aimed at keeping the population at manageable levels. Fred saw the matter differently: as the needless taking of life and, maybe, as a small act of betrayal.

In the end, the bunnies were spared the knife. Fred retrieved them from Joe, who apparently issued no objection. They are currently being nourished on grass in the courtyard of a Hare Krishna temple in the Hartford suburbs, awaiting the day they are strong and fit enough to venture back into the wild.

Hopefully in a field very far from mine.

This week in Jewish farming: The deer threat and an electric solution


Countless anxieties attended the planning for my first season farming. Losing my entire crop to deer was not among them.

Neither of the Northeastern farms where I had worked previously worried much about these herbivores. One farm was large and could keep losses from deer to a minimum with a shotgun. The other was on a main street in a semi-suburban environment where the deer pressure was fairly low. In both cases, a sort of Cold War stalemate prevailed. There were occasional border skirmishes and the requisite resort to arms. Losses were incurred on both sides, but never at catastrophic levels. The balance of power always prevailed.

But from the moment I began working our fields, I’ve gotten hints that we shouldn’t be nearly so casual. Connecticut is deer country. One of our towns gave its name to a disease borne by deer ticks. Neighbors would shoot me dubious looks when I shrugged in response to questions about my deer control strategy. Nonspecific references were made to a lost pumpkin crop a few years back.

One farmer a few towns over advised me in May to stop my planting and focus all my energies on protecting what I already had. If I had to do it all over again, he told me, I would invest in some serious fencing. I ignored him.

Even the deer tracks I’d notice each morning in our freshly plowed beds weren’t enough to light a fire. The tracks would pass by beautiful, tender green leaves that were left entirely unmolested. They were toying with me, I would say, waiting for the moment of perfect delectability before they decimated the whole crop. I didn’t really believe it was so, but somewhere in back of my mind I feared it might be.

The turning point came when my Hare Krishna farmhand, Fred, went to pick up some composted manure at a nearby supply house. After making a few trips, the woman at the store asked what we were up to. When Fred explained we were growing vegetables, the woman leaned in conspiratorially. “Did they tell you about the deer?” she asked.

That was enough to scare me straight. A few weeks later, a truck pulled up to the farm and unloaded $2,000 worth of electrified fencing. Held aloft on fiberglass rods, three strands of tape now circle the field. At night, after closing the gate and arming the solar battery, 9,000 volts of electricity pulse through them every two seconds or so.

But here’s the crazy thing — deer can easily jump six feet or more. Our top strand of electrified tape is only five feet high. The system works by baiting the deer to approach the fence and then shocking them so badly they think better of getting too close. It sounded a little crazy when the salesman explained it to me, but so far it’s working. And I’m sleeping a lot easier just knowing it’s there.

As a small farm with barely an acre currently under cultivation, a serious deer infestation could be devastating. And having committed to supplying vegetables to CSA members for another 21 weeks (two down!), I can ill afford the kind of losses even a small herd of deer could inflict. The rabbits and worms and beetles are taking enough as it is.

Growing organically means achieving a sustainable detente with the various forms of life on the farm. It’s tempting to aim for total victory. What could be more desirable than a farm entirely free of predacious animals and weeds? A lot, actually. The fact that all this wildlife wants a piece of the action is clear evidence that the food we’re growing is worth eating.

As I tell my shareholders, if those kale leaves were entirely devoid of little holes from flea beetles, that would be worrisome. Our farm teems with manifold forms of life and it would be incredibly short-sighted to try to change that. Coexistence is key — both sides give a little and get to live a lot.

 

Livestock disease spreads to Gaza


A new case of a “novel strain” of foot-and-mouth disease has been detected in the Gaza Strip, the U.N.‘s Food and Agriculture Organization reported.

In a statement Wednesday, the Food and Agriculture Organization said that sick animals were detected in Rafah, a town bordering Egypt, on April 19. The United Nations group said it confirmed fears that the outbreaks of the SAT2 strain of the virus in Egypt and Libya in February would jump to neighboring areas. The disease is highly contagious and has devastating effects on meat and milk production.

The Food and Agriculture Organization said that following the reports of the outbreak in Egypt, Israel had quickly implemented targeted vaccination along its southern borders to create a buffer zone of protection for animal herds most at risk.



It said the Gaza Strip will be receiving an initial lot of 20,000 vaccine doses to protect its valuable cattle. An additional 40,000 doses will be made available as soon as possible for sheep and goats, according to the organization.
 


Juan Lubroth, the Food and Agriculture Organization’s chief veterinary officer, said that vaccines against the SAT2 virus were still in short supply, meaning that the priority is to limit animal movements to prevent spreading the virus. Heightened surveillance of animal populations to quickly detect and respond to new outbreaks also is critical.

The organization said that the foot-and-mouth disease virus is transmitted via the saliva of sick animals and can live outside a host for a long time. It spreads easily via contaminated hay, stalls, trucks, shoes and clothing—even the hands of traders inspecting animals at market.


Community-supported agriculture grows on local Jews


Every Wednesday at noon, the Westside Jewish Community Center becomes a market where families pick up fresh, seasonal and certified organic fruits and vegetables grown by farmers who are part of a community-supported agriculture (CSA) project established by the Tierra Miguel Foundation. About 12 families participate in the program, which was launched last May and which does not require JCC membership.

“People love the produce,” JCC Executive Director Brian Greene said. “They feel good about buying vegetables straight from the farm and supporting organic farming.”

Inspired by a Jewish Journal editorial about ethical eating (“Moral Diet,” Jan. 5, 2007), Greene began looking into affiliating with a community-supported agriculture project giving families the opportunity to purchase a seasonal or annual share in an organic farm for a predetermined payment and, in return, receive a weekly box full of fruits and vegetables.

“This is a community-building activity,” Greene said, explaining that the project connects families with farmers, allowing both to share responsibility for stewardship of the land.

Additionally, Sinai Temple is starting the first Tuv Ha’Aretz community-supported agriculture project in Southern California. Tuv Ha’Aretz is the first Jewish CSA in North America and a program of Hazon, a New York-based community organization that sponsors physical challenges and engages in food-related work.

Families who sign up — who do not need to be Sinai Temple members — will commit to buying an entire season of fresh, organic produce from the McGrath Family Farms in Camarillo.

Besides receiving the food, the families are required to participate in a social action component by volunteering at least once during the year at the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition.

“We are creating a community of people who care about health and the sustainability of the world,” said Michelle Grant, Sinai Temple’s Green Committee co-chair.

A meeting for families interested in Sinai Temple’s Tuv Ha’Aretz project, slated to begin in the spring, will take place on Jan. 22. For more information or to R.S.V.P., call (310) 481-3243.

Those interested in becoming shareholders in the Westside JCC’s community- supported agriculture program can call (323) 938-2531.