Israeli farmers burned by Russian preference for Iranian celery

The shift has caused major issues for the Trabelsi family, farmers who operate in the western Negev near Ofakim.

By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News

Russia, where Israeli farmers usually export thousands of tons of celery each year, has now cut its purchases from Israeli farmers by nearly 50 percent in favor of Iranian-grown celery.

The shift has caused major issues for the Trabelsi family, farmers who operate in the western Negev near Ofakim.

Ofir Trabelsi, 56, told Makor Rishon that he’d been growing celery for the last 40 years. He said he was one of the first Israeli farmers to market celery to Russia.

Israeli farmers have always grown celery, Trabelsi said, primarily exporting to England “until at some point we lost the tender in England to the Spaniards and thought we were done with the celery.

“I continued to grow a small amount of it and decided to invest more in radish and export to Russia. People thought I was crazy, but it caught on. I started marketing celery to the Russians as well, and suddenly it was even more successful than the radish. So we stayed with these two crops. From the celery and radishes I raised my children and put them into business.”

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But Russia’s intervention in the 2014 Ukranian civil war changed everything, Trabelsi said. After harsh economic sanctions from Western countries towards Russia caused the value of the ruble to plummet, Russia began looking for cheaper options in vegetable importing.

Iran, physically closer and offering a significantly cheaper product than Israel, was there to fill the gap.

“In the past, Iran was a small factor in the Russian market; now they have paved a highway for the transportation of goods, while our maritime transport has become more expensive,” Trabelsi told Makor Rishon.

“Iranian celery is not of high quality, but because of the [coronavirus crisis], people prefer to buy it at 60 rubles (2.6 shekels, AR) per kilo, rather than our celery at 120 rubles per kilo.”

“The [celery] the Iranians are now exporting to Russians do not last more than a week,” said Trabelsi. “We provide a much higher quality project, which arrives in Russia in three weeks and is kept there for three months.

“But for the Russians, the current economic situation means they prefer ground transportation from Iran, which is faster and cheaper, and [ they’re willing to] compromise on the quality.”

The lack of demand from Russia has led to a massive surplus of celery, and the Trabelsi family was recently forced to destroy 15 percent of their crop.

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When asked if he could expect to receive financial aid from the government, the farmer said he was not optimistic.

“To get compensation, we need to show a 40 percent drop in our overall turnover – but that means I have to go bankrupt,” Trabelsi told Makor Rishon.

“We have applied for compensation, we have not yet received anything, and I do not know if we will receive it.”