End of Zionism through agriculture? Number of Israeli farmers drastically decreasing

Many young Israelis want to work in agriculture, but there is a lack of government incentives and relevant educational frameworks.

By Aryeh Savir/TPS

Tilling the land and creating bonds to it through agriculture has always been a central underpinning of Zionism. Since its inception, the Zionist movement has always emphasized farming as one of the most crucial ways in which Jews will re-inherit the Land of Israel.

However, over a century later, after Israeli society underwent many changes, and possibly in tandem with the advent of the Start-Up Nation and its values and objectives, Israel’s farming sector is in the retreat and is now the smallest in the world.

The Knesset’s Special Committee on Addictions, Drugs and the Challenges Facing Young Israelis learned during a Wednesday session that the number of farmers in Israel has decreased by about 50% since the 1970s.

The Committee explained that many young Israelis want to work in agriculture, but there is a lack of government incentives and relevant educational frameworks.

Committee Chair Member of Knesset (MK) Ram Shefa said that “there is a challenge with regards to this market, and how it will look in the future.”

Hila Gordon Gridish, a farmer from Dalton, a moshav in northern Israel in which the residents are engaged in agriculture, including growing vines, said that “lately the farmers have been blamed for injustices, pollution and price increases. The Minister of Agriculture, who is supposed to represent us and encourage us – hurts us. A few years ago, my parents and friends of theirs built a chicken coop farm with the support of the Ministry of Agriculture. They took out a huge state-guaranteed loan, but they are delaying the purchase of chickens due to the uncertainty in the industry.”

Shimon Guetta of the nearby Moshav Alma noted the lack of profitability in raising calves for the meat industry, due to competing imports.

MK Nira Shpak said the state should encourage young Israelis to “connect to the land” and provide the necessary tools to those who are interested in continuing to work in agriculture.

MK Inbar Bezek said that “agriculture is an industry that requires certainty. Long-term planning is crucial. Israeli agriculture is the basis of the entire country’s food security, so the state must do all it can to ensure the future of agriculture in Israel.”

Amit Ben-Tzur, Managing Director of the Yesodot Institute for Public Policy and Practical Zionism that deals with the challenges of the State of Israel in the fields of economy and society, told the Committee that beginning in the 1970s, there has been a gradual decrease of up to 50% in the number of farmers in Israel, and the number of people employed in the local agriculture industry is the lowest in the world, less than 1% of the population.

Israel, he said, needs about 900 new farmers each year, but less than 300 people complete agriculture studies annually, and most of them do not end up working in the industry. In contrast, in the European Union, between the years 2007 and 2020, some 18 billion euros were invested in encouraging people to become farmers, he said. This includes professional training, grants and loans for the purchase of equipment.

In the US, Ben-Tzur noted, a new farmer is eligible for an $8.1 million loan for the purpose of buying a farm and equipment.

Dr. Liron Amador, a researcher at Yesodot Institute, discussed the obstacles in bringing more young people to the industry, including an insufficient number of relevant educational institutions and a lack of internship options.

Uri Sapir, VP of Employment at the Hashomer HaChadash, an organization dedicated to safeguarding the land and Israeli farms in the Negev and Galilee and “upholding Zionist ideals on which Israel was founded,” said many young Israelis are interested in working in agriculture and called to remove the obstacles through a government measure.

The current government appears to be inclined to enact reforms in the agricultural industry that would further open the market to imports from abroad, thus further hindering the already unstable Israeli farming scene.