Mufaqara Part 6: Agrarian Days

After dodging soldiers for a few days, things get a little more quiet in the village. Further down the road things are heating up in a village called Susya, but I will save that for the next entry.

For now, I have a chance to pull weeds from the vegetable garden, and watch the last parts of the grain harvest. The dry season is well advanced, some zucchini and cucumbers are coming, the sunflowers are almost ready, the tomatoes are mostly still flowering and the grain is harvested. The olives are finished being pollinated but are still very small drupes. The third house is coming along, with Sayyid and Nisham working hard on it.

The third house almost has its walls complete.The third house is progressing, after sneaking materials past the soldiers.

Nisham creates the rebar reinforcement for one of the corners of the building.Nisham deftly creates the rebar reinforcement for one of the corners of his new building.

The vegetable garden is rather well thought out, and a good small case study for someone interested in permaculture. In fact, I suppose it is a good example of the indigenous knowledge which lead to the writings of the well known Permaculture authors.

One of the primary issues here is careful water use, through timing, planting pattern and garden location. The tomatoes, cucumber, ochra, a few beans and sunflowers are planted just after the rainy season, when the surface of the soil is still wet. By the time it dries out the plants are large enough to reach water lower down. Although no rain is expected for the duration of the crop, the vegetables do not need any irrigation. By this time of year, the surface of the soil is bone dry, which prevents any new plants from germinating. Yet, the larger plants are strong and healthy. The lack of weeds is just as well, because the soil is so rocky it would be very difficult to hoe. Seeing this suggests to me the idea of delivering water underground to avoid unwanted seed germination. Maybe it would be useful in a greenhouse.
Ahmed hides behind a tomato plant and shows off a cucumber his father grew.
Ahmed hides behind a tomato plant and shows off a smooth cucumber his father grew. There are fuzzy cucumbers too, which are usually quite tasty, a little bit sweet.

The garden is situated in a place that takes advantage of the local hydrology. It is in the beginning of a valley, nestled in a U of surrounding hills. A lot of the surrounding water runoff is delivered to the garden. Also, the rain-caused erosion makes the soil here deep. The valley is shaded by the hills for part of the day, lessening the problem of sunburn.

The planting pattern uses water carefully also. The garden has been deliberately planted with the tomatoes in the deepest area, and the cucerbits and sunflowers on the edge. The edges of the field dry out faster, but that’s OK since the cucerbits will die (of sunburn?) next month anyways. The sunflowers have time also to give their seeds. The indeterminate tomatoes take longer so they are given the choice spot.

The only irrigation used is for the fruit and trees planted throughout the small vegetable field. Distributed in among the annuals are grapes, plums, figs, and almonds. Water is given to the trees by putting it in a half-buried plastic bottle next to the tree. The bottle has holes in the bottom, so it slowly releases the water. A simple syphon, with a ball valve on the end to turn it off, brings the water down the hill from the cistern above then the water is carried in a small bucket the rest of the way.

As the season progresses, the birds take their toll on the sunflowers, despite the ribbons flipping in the wind which hum and act as scarecrows. The sunflowers are eaten as a snack by people here, but the harvest from such a small garden is quite small. I speculate that the sunflowers are decoys so that the birds leave other things alone. In any case, later in the season a more extensive scarecrow system with a central pole in the middle of the field, and ribbons radiating to the edges is constructed. A plethora of colorful cloths and plastic bags are attached to the ribbon.
The garden, middle of July, showing the new scarecrow.
The garden, middle of July, showing the new scarecrow.

The system seems well thought out. It makes the best of a difficult situation, although it’s still clear that more water would allow greater production; the grain fields are now lying empty and it’s only this one relatively wet area which can be used. The caretaker of the field tells me that that the cistern on the other end of the irrigation syphon is empty. We aren’t very close to the end of the dry season.

While the Israeli settlers a few hundred meters away have expensive and technically advanced drip irrigation systems for their water-hogging cherry trees (harvested by visiting Thai workers), the locals grow unirrigated olives and water their vegetables by hand, if at all. The water for much of “48”(1) is largely delivered through an enormous underground network which diverts the Jordan river. However, in more isolated areas like this they use well water. The water table seems reasonably healthy in the South Hebron Hills, despite the low rainfall (about 300mm per year). The loss from the water table from transpiration must be extremely small, since there are basically no trees. On the surface there is a hard shell of almost marble-like limestone, but underneath it is much more porous and soft. On a daily basis I walk by springs. If a Palestinian drills a well, however, the military usually destroys it. The Palestinian farmers I’m living with subsist off of rain water they collect, and have bunds running along the hills, leading to their cisterns. If the water runs out, which isn’t unusual, they have to purchase tanker loads of water.

Inside ‘48 there are some people who also need to sometimes buy water delivered by tanker truck. For a normal ‘48 family, the cost is trivial. For people I talked to, it’s not even worth bothering to collect rain water unless they are environmentalists interested from a principled point of view. For Mahmoud’s family, however, the cost of tanker water is very expensive; last year it cost about 15% of the family’s net income. In real dollars, each cubic meter of water is more expensive, (between 10 and 40 scheckles per cubic meter compared to about 4 where I was north of Tel Aviv) and their income is a lot smaller.

Many of the small fruit trees throughout and beside the garden are dying or dead although many are also taking root and look quite healthy. My initial impression was that the sick ones lacked water, (and aren’t mulched) but actually the problem is sunburn. Many plants (like olives) native to this region have techniques to protect themselves from sunburn, but imported plants seem to have problems. When we take out the few hardy weeds which are present in the tomato patch, the boys insist that I place the pulled plants on top of the tomato plants, which acts as a makeshift shade net. Later in the season old cloths are tossed over the tomato plants in an effort to shade them.

Over the past few days the grain from the valley floor has been moved up into a pile on the back of a donkey. The valley sides are too steep to allow a tractor down, so donkeys are still the preferred mode of transport in and out of the valley. The grain isn’t wheat; it has a tight husk on it and I think it is barley. The tight husk needs to be removed if people are going to eat it, a process called pearling. Wheat separates easily from it’s husk and is therefore easier for people to process. They don’t seem to have any pearling equipment here so I understand they will feed the barley to the animals. That means they aren’t growing their own grain for human consumption.

Loading grain onto the donkey, in order to bring it up to the road where it can be threshed.
Loading grain onto the donkey, in order to bring it up to the road where it can be threshed.

When there is a big pile of grain hauled up from the valley, we call the portable thresher around and load the grain into it by hand. It’s an incredibly dusty job, especially if the wind is not aligned well with the thresher. I try loading grain into the thresher but the wind is blowing the chaff directly back on to us, and I can hardly see, nevermind breath. After just a minute I’m incredibly itchy (I’m allergic to grass) and engineer a one-person wildcat strike. I tell them I’ll be happy to get back to work if they move the tractor forward a few meters, putting our working area outside the dust cloud. The guys just smile at me and don’t seem to mind. In fact, I think they like the noise, bustle and mess.

Stopping for a photo next to the grain thresher
Stopping for a photo next to the grain thresher.

Portrait of a grain thresher.

Since they don’t grow their own, Mahmoud’s family buys wheat. They buy animal fodder and separate the wheat from this for our bread. I guess this must be the cheapest way to buy wheat; as animal food. The girls and women painstakingly wash it, remove the previously added chopped straw by floating it in water, then lay the grain out to dry in the sun. There is still some corn and chaff in it, which is removed by sorting through the grain by hand, very similar to how rocks are removed from the rice in India. To someone from an industrialized country the labor intensive nature of this whole process was quite astonishing when I first saw it.

One of the other ingredients that we buy is sunflower oil. Sometimes it’s donated; I can see boxes with oil in them that are labeled as being donated by the World Food Program, as a “Refined Sunflower Oil; Gift From Canada, Produced in Turkey”. Olive oil is not good for frying food, and we like to eat fried eggs and potatoes on occasion so this is where the sunflower oil comes into our diet. The potatoes are purchased also. Mahmoud’s family has access to a car which comes from time to time, to deliver things ranging from animal feed to the occasional popsicle.

Some of the girls escaping the heat in the cave.
Some of the girls escaping the heat in the cave.

Mahmoud keeps chickens for the eggs. The chickens live with the sheep and goats, free to go wherever they want and must defend themselves from all the hazards of the world. They aren’t always able to do this, and I have found a dead chicken lying around, perhaps killed by a fox. It could have been killed by any number of things, including one of the large raptors I sometimes see patrolling. It’s a tough life being a chicken in the South Hebron Hills, but no doubt more pleasant than inside a factory farm.

The meat that Mahmoud’s family eats about once a week is not chicken, but turkey. One of the other families raises turkeys and I suppose they have some sort of trade agreement figured out. The turkeys are truly free-ranging, wandering about where they like and it is up to them to defend themselves from the dogs, foxes, lynx and whatever else is out there. One of the hazards rather unique to this area is poisoned grain which the settlers have put out in the past to kill the flocks of the palestinian shepherds. The poison was a bioaccumulative one and also tainted all of the milk and meat of the animals which survived.

Speaking of turkeys, the Israeli military is up to no good in the next door town of Susya. It has been a nice few days here in Mufaqara but I’m afraid things are not going as well over there. More on that next time. For now, I can watch the white doves and military helicopters sharing the sky.
White doves fly among the olives and almonds.
White doves fly among the olives and almonds.

A military helicopter crosses the night sky.
A military helicopter cuts through the night sky. I encourage you to click on the image and see a higher resolution version.

(1) Many Palestinians say “48” instead of “Israel”, in allusion to the ethnic cleansing campaign which took place in that area 1948. During the campaign indigenous Palestinians were generally murdered or kicked out of their homes in order to create a predominately Jewish state.
-Official blog for the campaign in Al Mufaqarah

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