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April 8, 2020 3:20 am

A Return to Farming: The Refuge for the Corona Unemployed

avatar by Yoel Zilberman


Agricultural fields in the Jezreel Valley of northern Israel. Photo: Tal Oz via Wikimedia Commons.

The coronavirus crisis has led to a slow-down in many areas of the Israeli economy. The main impact has been on the labor market, with the unemployment rate as high as 20%. Since the start of March, more than 600,000 people have registered with the Israel Employment Agency, in search of work.

At the same time, for the agricultural industry, the workforce crisis is intensifying. For nearly a month and a half, foreign workers have not been allowed into Israel, directly affecting production for Israeli farmers who need the labor force to meet production demands. In addition, the borders of Israel are closed, leading to an enormous shortage of laborers. The crisis is so severe that entire branches of the agricultural industry are now in danger.

The citrus fruit industry — valued at half a billion shekels — is in danger, with fruit still waiting to be picked. In the vegetable industry, there is concern that tons of agricultural produce will not be picked and left to decay. Exacerbating it all is the fact that the average age of Israeli farmers is 64, many of whom have no children or grandchildren, leaving them with no other support in their fields.

Today, the unemployed are looking for work in agriculture in unprecedented numbers. When the corona crisis began, HaShomer HaChadash created an operations center to coordinate emergency requests from farmers, volunteers, and job seekers. In the last two weeks, we received 1,752 job requests. The average age of those turning to us is 28, and 53% had previous experience in farming.

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Most of these individuals come from the big cities — Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Beersheva, Rehovot, Ramat Gan, and Herzilya. Most job seekers (72%) are between the ages of 24 and 32, but we also received requests from people as young as 14 and as old as 71. And most requests came from people who lost their jobs in tourism and informal education, or from university students. Every day, we help bring hundreds of volunteers into fields throughout Israel. Together with our partners from Jewish National Fund-USA, we are working hard to continue to bring in international support that is directly creating solutions for food security, as well as employment in Israel.

At the same time, another 3,000 people have volunteered with 70 farmers around the country through the “SunDo” mobile app, which connects volunteers with farmers. Many of these volunteers are currently on unpaid leave from their jobs and are looking for meaningful work. And the number of volunteers grows daily, helping facilitate relief from the crisis, even with the restrictions set by the Ministry of Health.

All over the world, countries and organizations that rely on produce from other countries are realizing that our reality has changed, and that we must create safe, secure infrastructures for a self-sustaining food industry within each country, for its own citizens.

It is still not clear whether this is just a present need or a new trend that has taken root, but the current crisis may produce far-reaching changes in the way that young men and women in Israel perceive agricultural work. Perhaps this is the beginning of a return to simplicity, a return to the basics, of working the land from which it all started.

We now have the opportunity to educate the younger generation in a different way. We can help them understand that one’s path in life must include working the land and connecting to it, that our food does not simply appear at the supermarket but is grown in the fields by someone who makes that happen, and that manufacturing and productivity are not only important in the business sector, but also in agriculture. This is, unquestionably, a historic period. The big question is what new opportunities now exist. Will we be able to recognize the call to return, just a little, to nature and to ourselves and remember not just where food comes from — but that we cannot take it for granted?

We seek life, no more and no less, our life from the source of life, from our very land, sustenance for the body and the soul, power and supreme abundance from this living source. We come to our Homeland in order to be planted in our natural soil from which we have been uprooted, to strike our roots deep into its life-giving substances, and to stretch out our branches in the sustaining and creating air and sunlight. (A.D. Gordon, “Our Tasks Ahead,” 1918)

Yoel Zilberman is the CEO and Founder of HaShomer HaChadash, an Israeli NPO that secures the connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel through education and activism by helping local farmers to safeguard the land.

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