Tu B’Shevat, the “New Year of the Trees,” begins the evening of Jan. 15 this year. In honor of the holiday, The Salad Trail, an agricultural tourist attraction in Israel’s Negev desert (of all places), will hold a vegetable-garden planting workshop on Saturday—and, due to high demand, the program will be repeated the following Saturday.
The Salad Trail invites visitors to experience the joy of picking vegetables with their own hands and eating them on the spot; group tours last between two and three-and-a-half hours and also include a range of activities for kids. “Our Tu B’Shevat activity will be different from what we usually do here,” explained Uri Alon, founder of The Salad Trail. “Our guests will be met by an agronomist who will teach them how to start their very own vegetable garden at home, and they will receive kohlrabi, lettuce, parsley, and other seedlings to take home. Anyone can have a vegetable garden at home. If you live in an apartment and don’t have a garden or a backyard, you can even do it in a window box or a flowerpot.”
Alon established the Salad Trail almost 10 years ago in the northwestern Negev. Although Alon grows crops there, The Salad Trail is not a commercial farm these days but rather more of a museum. Still, Alon says the holiday’s significance isn’t merely symbolic for him: “Agriculturally speaking, Tu B’Shevat is the end of winter, and farmers know that by that time they need to ready their trees for blooming. There are various agro-technological things that need to be done before Tu B’Shevat, such as pruning deciduous trees,” which lose their leaves seasonally.
The Salad Trail has special programs for Tu B’Shevat every year, but the programs change; one year, for instance, featured a workshop on making compost. More than 1,500 people have already made reservations for this year’s planting workshop, including employees from high-tech firms as well as family groups.
Alon was born and raised in Rehovot, a city in the center of Israel, and at the age of 18 was recruited to the Israeli Navy, where he served for many years as a ship commander. Afterward he started studying at the faculty of agriculture and specialized in plant diseases.
In 1982, when Israel evacuated its Sinai settlement of Yamit, the evacuees were relocated to an area called Hevel Shalom. Some of those evacuees had lived in a settlement in Yamit, called Talmei Yosef, and when they moved to Hevel Shalom they established a moshav named Talmei Yosef there in the Negev, eight kilometers from the Egyptian border and 7.5 kilometers east of the Gaza strip. Alon was one of the soldiers who executed the evacuation: “During the evacuation, I was a soldier and I helped evacuate the residents, who a few years later would become my friends and neighbors.”
In 1988, Alon moved to Talmei Yosef to open a farm. “When I got here all I saw was sand,” he said. “In biblical times the Jews didn’t settle this far south because there was no water here. I came to live in the desert and followed Ben-Gurion’s dream—to make the Negev bloom—but I did it for financial reasons. I wanted to become a farmer but since my parents weren’t farmers I needed to buy my own farm, and buying land in central Israel was too expensive for me. My only option was leasing land in one of the three areas that the government subsidized: an area near the Sea of Galilee, the Arabah, and the Negev. I chose the Negev, although it hardly ever rains here.”
The average amount of rain in the area is 80 millimeter per year. “This means this place is a desert,” Alon noted. “A desert is a place that gets less than 250 millimeters of precipitation each year. With less than 200 millimeters of rain you can’t grow wheat, which means you can’t have a settlement.” But utilizing Israeli agricultural inventions and developments and relying on artificial irrigation, Alon and other local farmers proved otherwise. He started farming in the desert and later on became an adviser to local farmers, as well as farmers from around the world, on how to grow crops in desert conditions without using dangerous pesticides.
Then, about 10 years ago, a course opened in the area for people interested in changing careers from agriculture to tourism, which in recent years has become quite a common direction in Israeli economy. “My wife loves to cook and wanted to make meals for guest rooms in the area, so she joined the course,” recalled Alon. “Later I joined, too, and we decided to close our farm and re-open it as an agricultural museum instead.”
The Salad Trail was born, encompassing open fields, orchards, and greenhouses spread over two and a half acres. Groups—families, or buses of tourists—make reservations for tours led by guides.
When Alon first learned how to become a tour guide, he was taught that in order to attract visitors his establishment should be on the way to somewhere. The fact that it wasn’t didn’t deter him. He knew he was on to something. Today The Salad Trail offers tours for groups of tourists, professionals, kids, and pensioners, and Alon perceives the fact that The Salad Trail attracts between 40,000 and 50,000 visitors a year to moshav Talmei Yosef—which he himself claims to be “in the middle of nowhere”—as a huge achievement.
The Salad Trail tours offer various different “stations,” in which visitors experience things like picking strawberries, radishes, giant cucumbers, colorful mini-peppers, and white, yellow, and purple carrots; visiting a spice greenhouse and learning about the health benefits of various spices and their medicinal uses; making Bedouin pitas and eating them while they’re hot with various fresh green herbs; and even releasing carrier pigeons into the sky. Kids also get to run through the passion-fruit maze, befriend turtles, and make art installations—like drawings in the ground—using potatoes.
Renee Fisher from New Jersey recently visited The Salad Trail with her three children and her parents: “We especially appreciated picking and tasting the produce as we learned about it,” she told me. “This interactive approach really kept our children’s attention. There was truly something for everyone in this experience.”
After hearing much about it, I arrived at The Salad Trail last month with a group of friends on a sunny day (sunny in the Negev, not so sunny elsewhere in the county). As we parked the car, we saw a group of kindergarten children joyfully jumping around with their new kumquat-necklaces, which they made at the kumquat orchard, where they learned about citrus-growing in the Negev.
We were invited to join a tour group of agronomists who specialize in genetic improvement of vegetable crops. But aside from their professional interest in what The Salad Trail has to offer, they also seemed to enjoy hand-picking and tasting endless kinds of tomatoes—from cute little “babushka tomatoes” to juiceless “sandwich tomatoes” made especially for large coffee-chains that want to avoid selling soggy sandwiches—no less than us simpletons.
Alon doesn’t guide many of the tours anymore—he employs 15 guides who are fluent in several languages—but we were lucky enough to receive a tour by the man himself. He looks like a story-book-farmer (moustache and all), he wouldn’t agree to be photographed without his trademark hat, and at the beginning of the tour he mischievously pressed play on a mini-tape-recorder attached to his belt, which surprisingly blasted out Elvis Presley’s rendition of “Old McDonald Had a Farm.” Each new segment of the tour was accompanied by a different humorous song, introducing the next topic on the vegetable-agenda.
Before entering tomato-heaven, we visited the Flying Strawberries, entering a large greenhouse full of hanging containers filled with a special substrate for growing strawberries that is developed from coconut coir grown in Sri Lanka. Alon explained that since the strawberries don’t grow in soil, they are less likely to contract diseases. He then passed around little jars of tiny strawberry-hating insects brought to eat the harmful ones who do covet the strawberries. After learning the basics about biopesticides, we got to taste strawberries, which weren’t sprayed with Organophosphate pesticides, unlike much of the fruit you buy at the market.
Even though along the way visitors get to snack on endless raw vegetables, all this open-air activity is bound to make people hungry. Taking this into consideration, Uri’s wife Shuli prepares potjiekos—or poyke, as they call it in Israel—a rustic meal cooked in a traditional South African cast-iron pot and served in the strawberry greenhouse to groups that have ordered the meal in advance. “Poyke is a stew prepared outside, on an open fire, in a special iron pot that has legs, so it can stand on the fire,” she said. “The poyke is in fact the pot, so anything you cook in it is considered a poyke meal. Our stew contains chicken and root vegetables. If there are vegetarians in the group, I make a special pot for them, with legumes like beans and chickpeas instead of chicken. I use the most simple and conventional kind of seasoning, to make sure it will appeal to everybody, and it comes out delicious. People always ask me how come poyke tastes so good, and I tell them that the most important ingredient is the smoke. It gives everything a smoky flavor.”
The vegetables Shuli uses are grown either on the farm or on other farms in the area: “We grow almost every kind of vegetable in the area, except for cabbage, cauliflower, and onions,” she said.
The Salad Trail is a family business. “Our kids are totally a part of the business,” Shuli said with pride. “We have three kids: Tom is 26, Nitzan is 23, and Shahaf is 18. The poyke meals were initially Tom’s idea. He started the project after finishing his army service as a way to pay for his big trip abroad. Usually parents pass their business on to their kids. In this case our son passed his business on to us when he left for university. Our daughter Nitzan was a counselor in youth organizations and in the army. She’s an expert in youth counseling and education, and she helped us a lot with planning our tours. And our youngest son is into computers, and he provided us with the computer software that we use in the business.”
Alon wasn’t born in the desert, but now it’d be hard to imagine him anywhere else. “It’s very had to grow crops in the desert because there is not enough water and the ground doesn’t have enough nutrients,” he concluded, “but we decided to take this land and turn the desert into a paradise.”
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.