03/04/2012 23:53
Season sees 50% more rainfall than average, spelling relief for farmers.
Pura Nature Reserve By Melanie Lidman

For six years, the drooping eucalyptus trees illustrated the frustration of the Negev’s farmers: Like most trees, they were suffering from a severe drought and did not have enough water to blossom. Unable to make ends meet, farmers turned to the government for support to recoup their losses from the multi-year drought.

But on Sunday, Yochai Hershberg, the second-generation owner of Philip’s Farm, was giddily scrubbing the mud off his roadside stand on Highway 40. “You should have seen the flood here this past weekend!” he said, eagerly showing visitors a video on his cellphone of the parking lot gushing with water.

Lake Kinneret rises 20 cm. over weekend

Most business owners would be upset about a flood, but for Hershberg, the water was a gift from the heavens.

In the past five days, the Negev has received an impressive 100 millimeters of rain. The average rainfall in the northern Negev near Kiryat Gat is 330 mm., but in the past six years there has only been 200 to 240 mm. of water, Hershberg explained. This year, they have already reached 425 mm.

This was the second time his fields have flooded in the past two weeks – having not overflowed for the past six years. But even more importantly, Hershberg said, the rain was optimally distributed over the winter: slowly, over many days, rather than a single downpour.

“It wasn’t a hard rain, it was more gentle, so the land was able to completely absorb it,” he said.

The plentiful rainfall also resulted in a banner year for the red anemones, which bathe the Negev hillsides in a red cloak each spring. Last year, the high season of flowers, which is celebrated each year with the Darom Adom (Scarlet South) Festival, lasted a paltry two weeks. This year, six weeks after they first bloomed on January 20, the flowers were just beginning to show signs of drooping.

Hershberg added that while the rain helped the wildflowers bloom more vividly than usual, next year promises to be exceptional. The rain will enable this year’s flowers to blossom to their full capacity and spread the maximum amount of seeds.

The festival, which is held every weekend in February and includes family hikes, farm activities, bike rides and guided tours, ended last weekend. The anemones are fading as wild mustard plants bloom yellow across the intensely green hills. Bring a sandwich and add some of the mustard leaves, which have a spicy aftertaste that tastes like mild horseradish. Sage, fennel and mint are also in bloom, so a finjan (kettle) for tea is also recommended.

The rainfall will also help next year’s crop of honey and olives, two of Hershberg’s main products at roadside stand. The tangy organic eucalyptus honey, made from the fuzzy blossoms of eucalyptus trees, marries the sweetness of raw honey with a slightly spicy kick.

But Hershberg, whose father, Philip, started the farm in the 1950s with two partners, is the first to admit that plentiful rains alone will not return the farm to a profitable status. “Farmers have a really hard time making a living today,” he said. “So we’re trying now to make a living off of tourism.”

His farm is part of an innovative program by the Agriculture Ministry to rehabilitate abused donkeys, using them to carry tourists on treks through the northern Negev. Hershberg pointed out another benefit of the recent rainfall: It grows more food for the donkeys.

Damp land and heat are the ideal conditions for farmers, Hersberg said on Sunday, as he polished honey jars speckled with rain. Since the Negev does not usually experience a shortage of hot days, this bodes well for farmers – who after years of drought, finally have a break in the clouds.