Another country better known for it’s bad news rather than the good, Israel was the 4th country on the Nuffield GFP tour.
From the cherry farm next to the Syrian border in the north from where we could see plumes of smoke rising in the distance, the Palestinian restaurants in the West Bank, to the Moshav villages in the Arava in the south, there is one overriding feature.
The Israelis embrace risk and failure at a level that is truly breathtaking. The country is 4th in a table of innovative countries to startup a business. Relations with their neighbours may be difficult but under this environment the communities of different religions seem to thrive against the odds.
According to the Israeli head of SOSA, an organisation sponsored by the Australian government to support start up businesses, their secret is the attitude of living life to the maximum. The high risks may create failures, but they also reap rich rewards.
We travelled to Ofaimme Farm in Arava, in the North Negev desert where we met Inon.
Over a delicious breakfast at his farm cafe, he told us how he used to grow capsicum peppers for export to the UK and Europe. The business was labour intensive and he had 50 temporary workers from Thailand working in the crop and the packhouse. The profit margin was quite small and the business had to grow constantly to be viable.
Every 7 years, land in the Arava has to be rested for a year under the Jewish religious law. Inon used this ‘gap year’ to travel the world with his family, visiting friends and farms as far away as New Zealand. He brought back many new ideas from his travels as he realised that his business was neither sustainable nor satisfactory for a good work/life balance.
Pepper production was stopped and Alpine goats, poultry and vegetable crops were introduced to the farm. The goats are fed with a combination of grain and barley which is grown hydroponically on site.
The feed helps keep the animals cool in the desert heat without the need for washing them with cold water. Solar panels on the roof of the goat shed run the fans and lighting for the goats and chickens. Manure from the livestock goes into compost which can be used on the farm. Not only is the system sustainable, it is also organic and Kosher certified.
Ofaimme maximise their profitability by having an additional business of cafes and a delicatessan, managed by Inon’s brother who is a chef and food writer.
The eggs are sold to local farmers who run organic vegetable box delivery scheme. Eggs with a poor or dirty appearance are used by the kitchen and delicatessan in the meals and baked goods.
The goat’s milk is used for labneh and cheese which is also used in the cafes and delicatessan.
The remarkable thing is that these goats were stolen from the farm last year and took several weeks to get only some of them back. Once back on farm they realised that the goats had been so badly handled, that the business would not be viable unless new goats were sourced. This was certainly a setback for the business especially as in their first year the goat dairy products were under development and nothing was sold until the ideal product had been created.
The Ofaimme brand now includes 400 products from honey to olive oil and dates, sourced from local organic farmers. Inon treats the theft of their livestock as a bump in the road and have built a stable and profitable brand that is not dependent on one key customer. There are now 5 Israelis workers supported by volunteers from the Woofer scheme.
It was truly inspirational to see how this business has been revamped from a classic export business of high cost low margin to become a sustainable, organic business serving the local community with local product.