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August 11, 2021
Organic Farmer, Peace Builder

Shelly Zvern (above right) lives at the Kibbutz Samar in southern Israel. Samar was founded by people who came from other kibbutzes and wanted something different: more independence, more responsibility, more respect.

Organic date farming has been a big part of life at Samar for many years. Working with Building Together, the community is piloting a new enterprise with their date harvests: they are building a factory to make date honey. Date honey production eventually will be in tandem with Al-Auja, a Palestinian farming village about 165 miles away, north of Jericho. “The idea is to build a joint business that will cultivate relationships and drive revenue for communities on both sides of the border,” said Building Together President and CEO Roland Lewis. 

Dates are the fruit of palm trees. Samar grows four varieties. Ms. Zvern does the scheduling and logistics for Samar’s farming throughout the year.

As she began to explain the farming cycle, she started in the winter months, when Samar farmers de-thorned the palms by climbing the trees with machetes in hand, sometimes with a boost from cherry pickers.

“In February, we do new plantings,” Ms. Zvern continued. “In March, we start thinning. This is the most important work, other than the harvest. It determines the size and quality of the date. There’s an average of 20 to 22 branches per tree. Each branch has 6,000 flowers. It takes about three months to thin. At the first thinning, we do about half. We wait to find out results of pollination, then we thin again.”

“Then we have a period of a few weeks where we have time to breathe a little bit before the next job,” she said. “In mid-July, we start the harvest. For trees under three meters, we cover the whole branch with sacks. You open the sacks at the bottom and the fruits fall into the sack. It’s very slow. We have a different approach for trees higher than three meters. We invented our own machines that shake the trees. In an average harvest day, our neighbors harvest 10 to 12 pallets of dates. We do around 40 a day. We can do the harvest in six weeks. It takes the neighbors three months.” The Medjool dates are ready first, she said.

During the harvest season, 75 to 80 people are involved. Some cook, some operate the machines, some do logistics (like Ms. Zvern); many receive, sort and pack the dates. Because of the desert heat, the first shift of date harvest work begins at 9pm and finishes at 4am. The second shift lasts to noon.

“We don’t have a  manager or a boss. We’re a team of people who work together as volunteers,” she said. “For us, the way is as important as the result. We’re coming to work every day because we want to provide for ourselves, but we also want to have a good environment. I always joke that the two conditions for us to work are water and music.”

Ms. Zvern and her Samar neighbors are eager to begin working with their Auja counterparts. They expect to have jars of date honey ready for the 2022 holiday season.

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