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Hi Tech farming at Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu - the cradle of bio-organics

Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu - home of Mario Levy pioneer of global bio-organic farming

Mario Levy (1924 -2018) was a gentle soul who worked in concert with nature.

Organic farming existed long before Mario Levy saw the light of day, but he took the concept to new heights by marrying the ancient organic disciplines with modern biological practices, born out of his love of nature.

The following words from Genesis could have been Mario Levy’s inspiration and guiding light "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to everything that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food" (Genesis 1:28-30).

Mario Moshe Levy was born in Italy in 1924 and made Aliyah in the early 1940s, after which he studied at the Mikveh Israel Agricultural School. He then became a pioneer member of Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, which had been established a few years earlier. He soon became the team leader for the enhancement of agricultural development on his kibbutz. While Mario Levy was a son of the soil, he later found a kindred soul in another member of the kibbutz in the person of Yaakov Nakash. The only difference between the two was that Mario was concerned with the artificial fertilizer chemicals that he believed were contaminating the soil, while Yaakov, an entomologist, was concerned about the contamination of plant produce by the chemicals used in pesticides to control insects. His secondary concern was the potentially harmful effect the poisoned insects might have on bird and other predator life, as well as the effect the pesticides had on the atmosphere.

This was indeed an ideal partnership between two men who cared deeply for the environment and the resultant effects of chemicals on human and animal life. Working in concert, they developed a holistic approach to crop production on the kibbutz, Mario developing the organic aspect while Yaakov concentrated on the biological ingredient. The marriage of these two disciplines resulted in the birth of a new method of healthy increased crop production and insect control known as bio-organic farming.

Mario Levy and Organic Farming

Mario Levi succeeded with his organic farming project to such a degree that the Ministry of Agriculture decided to appoint him as the leader of an initiative to implement organic farming principles throughout Israel. A few years later, towards the end of the seventies, Mario founded the Israel Bio-Organic Agriculture Association (IBOAA), which has as its primary mission the promotion of the protection of the environment. The organisation currently boasts some 500 farming members, and while they are only responsible for between 1.5 and 2% of Israel’s agricultural crop production, they account for 15% of exports of grown foodstuffs, accounting for approximately NIS400,000,000 in foreign trade.

Mario Levy’s achievements were recognised with the presentation of awards from both the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements and the International Plant Council. The greatest accolade he received was from Bar-Ilan University, when the following announcement was made. “Bar-Ilan University bestows an honorary doctorate on Mario Moshe Levy, a pioneer in organic farming and founder of the Israel Bio-Organic Agriculture Association. Inspired by Jewish tradition and values of safeguarding human health, his deep-rooted commitment to promoting, guiding and implementing the foundations of organic farming has contributed greatly to the field's dramatic growth and development in Israel.”

Mario Levy inspecting some of his beloved bio-organic produce on Sde Eliyahu

Yaakov Nakash - the other half of a unique partnership

Yaakov Nakash was born in Paris, France, in March 1939, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. While he does not remember his early life, he’s primary memories are that he was brought up as an only child in a Christian home, unaware that he was Jewish by birth. He visited Israel as a 17 year old on a Christian pilgrimage, during the course of which he made the startling life changing discovery that he was in fact Jewish. Yaakov Nakash made Aliyah in 1959 and found himself on Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, where he has remained since, partnering with Mario Levy in their life's work.

Nakash attended lectures at the Volcani Institute in Rishon LeZion, but was largely a self taught entomologist. After Mario began with his organic farming experiments, eschewing the use of chemical fertilizers, Nakash soon realised that the other half of organic farming lay in the introduction of pest control methods that were not reliant on environmentally harmful chemical pesticides.

He not only began experimentation with biological methods of controlling insects which were harmful to the crops, but also experimented with methods of enhancing production using biological methods of pollination. Thus was born the combination of organic and biological farming, which is now simply referred to as bio-organic farming.

Pardon my slight digression while I tell you a little bit about the Volcani Institute, which is an integral part of the huge advances in agricultural production and methods that have been made in Israel. The Agricultural Research Station of the Jewish Agency for Palestine was founded in Ben Shemen in 1921 by Yitzhak Elazari Volcani. This was the first Jewish scientific research centre in Mandate Palestine, preceding the Weizmann Institute by 13 years, although the Agricultural Research Centre was also established at the behest of Chaim Weizmann. The name of the research centre was later changed to the Volcani Institute in honour of the memory of the founder. The Institute, now based in Rishon LeZion, is the Research and Development arm of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, as well as providing facilities for graduate and post graduate studies in agriculture.

Back to Yaakov Nakash, whose experiments with pollination led to the establishment of the company Bio Bee, on Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu. Bio Bee which currently exports its products to over 50 countries globally, describes itself in these words “BioBee Biological Systems is one of the leading international companies in the field of Biologically based Integrated Pest Management, Natural Pollination, and Medfly Control” The company has opened branches internationally in the United States, Russia, South Africa, Colombia, Mexico, Uzbekistan and Chile. Bio Bee’s main areas of activity are the production of biologically hatched bumble bees to enhance pollination and biologically enhanced Mediterranean fruit flies to control the spread of these insects, while the the suppression of spider mites, particularly those that attack strawberries, has become one of Bio Bee's contemporary enterprises.

Yaakov Nakash with his grandson Naveh

Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu

The Kibbutz is situated in the Beit Shean Valley, about 40 kms south of Lake Kinneret and falls under the jurisdiction of Emek HaMaayanot (The Valley of Springs) Regional Council. The kibbutz was founded as a Tower and Stockade settlement in 1939 by a group of religious refugees who had fled Nazi Germany. Sde Eliyahu houses the regional Religious School which caters for pupils from primary school right through to high school. A well appointed Ulpan centre offers accommodation and Hebrew classes for young religious olim, as well as providing accommodation for lone soldiers while they are doing their stint of military service.

Sde Eliyahu Synagogue

Sde Eliyahu is one of a group of 4 religious kibbutzim in close proximity to one another, the others being Ein HaNatziv, Tirat Zvi and Shluhot. Besides its agricultural activities and Bio Bee, the kibbutz has a well developed and productive dairy herd, a spice factory and is a large organic date producer. The kibbutz has a large bio-organic vineyard and produces an extremely tasty organic grape juice, which is also suitable for Passover use.

The Bio Tour Office and Coffee shop

The Bio Bee facility has given rise to Bio Tours which has become a favoured tourist destination, for both local and foreign visitors, (before Covid 19) with sightseers learning about bio-organic farming and pest control methods. Tourists are taken on a tour of the kibbutz where they learn about the use of owls for rodent control. They see how donkeys are used in the palm tree orchards to prevent an overpopulation of palm trees by reducing the growth of new plants from dates that have fallen to the ground. Bio Tours in turn has resulted in the opening of a delightful little coffee shop which sells many of the bio-organic products produced on the kibbutz. A visit to this kibbutz is highly recommended.

This link will takes you a 6 minute video which will give you more detail about Bio Bee

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Fascinating article, thank you Peter! For me also a sentimental one as Sde Eliyahu was the Kibbutz where my friend Hayden Bailey and his charming wife Heather were gracious enough to host me for an night-stop visit and where Hayden was kind enough to take me on a very comprehensive tour of the Kibbutz and its facilities, including Bio Bee. It was also where Peter Bailey gave me a bottle of wonderful grape juice to take home to South Africa. Very fond and grateful memories!

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