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Agriculture Thrives In Israel's Arava Desert

If you’ve ever dreamed of getting away from it all and starting a new life, you might consider joining an initiative to turn a desert green.

Nestled along the Jordanian border and spanning between the Dead Sea and Eilat, hothouses using advanced horticultural techniques are growing fruits and vegetables. 

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Credit Tania Pons-Allon
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A child plays in the sands of the Arava.

They're located in a place in Southern Israel called the Arava. One of the harshest places on earth — hot, dry, barren — the Arava receives less than an inch of rainfall a year. In the 1950's a group of pioneers set out to make the region livable. The community grew to over 400 people who eventually were able to adapt fruits and vegetables to the desert’s habitat, even introducing new crops to local farmers. Today their numbers have swelled to 4,000.

Annette Vacarro, a registered nurse, and a pediatrician friend learned about the Arava a year after settling down in Troy.   "She came across an article about the Arava, and how they have no pediatricians and very little health care available, and they make it work, and asked me how I felt about going down there, and I said 'I would love it,' and so we put together a trip, her and I and we reached out to a couple of people that were mentioned in the article, and one of them got back to us and said 'we'd love to have you.'"

The women put together a program to address the community's specific health care needs and set off in September 2018 for what Vacarro describes as a "life changing experience."

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Credit Tania Pons-Allon
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Tania Pons-Allon and family in the Arava desert.

One of the people she met there was Tania Pons-Allon, a former designer from Tel Aviv who now lives on a 10-acre plot in the Central Arava.   "We are growing peppers, eggplant, watermelon, grapes, dates and mangoes. And I can't emphasize it enough, this is a desert. So it's quite remarkable that between us and other friends and neighbors in that region have been able to do such amazing agriculture in that region, and we've been doing that with a lot of research and development. And in fact, 900 families living in the Central Arava are responsible for over 50 percent of Israel's fresh vegetable exports."

Pons-Allon works in the resource development department of the Central Arava Regional Council; she and her husband also work the farm full-time.  O "And we have about 12 workers mainly from Thailand and some students from East Timor on this wonderful program called AICAT, which is the Arava International Center for Agriculture Training, and it's a very unique program because we bring students from Asia and Africa, developing countries, to learn about advanced agriculture in the desert so they can go back home and of course implement that and change their lives and the lives in their countries."

Pons-Allon says partners and friends from around the world share the passion of settling in the desert.  "Our biggest mission is to double the population, because we're so isolated and lacking a lot of services. We're trying to make it an alternative for the condensed center of Israel and being new families to the region to see it grow."

Pons-Allon was recently made an appearance in Albany with Vaccaro at a Jewish National Fund  (JNF) breakfast for a discussion entitled “A Desert Frontier: Challenges of Development in the Arava.”

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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