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Growing Food for Sustainability: Getting Started, Tips, and Advice With Akiva Hollinger

Updated: Dec 24, 2021

Living in the south of Israel, comes with a certain amount of uncertainty. This of course is taken with a grain of salt. There are many sacrifices you go through to live way out in the desert like we do. One of those things is that I don't have a community of like minded people to bounce ideas off of or share small victories with. We had been living here for over 20 years and I had yet to meet other English speakers with similar goals to mine. Then one day , out of the blue, I met Akiva from Pennsylvania while at the shuk in Ofakim. He and his family live in this small southern town, although his varied background is largely in organic farming, marketing and consultation.

I recently sat down with Akiva to ask a few questions about getting started with a garden. What do beginners need to know? How can a small farm become scaled to a larger more profitable one? When do we know we're ready to start digging? What vegetables do we start with? etc.

I brought my video camera and my 13 year old cameraman to begin filming this crash course in gardening. We set it up, but it didn't take long for my camera dude to find friends and run to play tag with all the guys in the street. (Akiva and his wife Batya have 10 children, four of which are boys, so you can imagine said cameraman's predicament ). There were technical difficulties such as: the camera stopped filming every twenty minutes or less, I had no liable cameraman to keep that going, there were some five or six boys playing tag in and outside of the house, and the only microphone I had, was that which is built in to the camera. So all this activity was picked up and our voices were virtually drowned out . Throughout all of this, it was still such a great interview and we all had fun. I have added a segment from our interview for you to see, but in case you can't hear it well enough, I have written down the important points Akiva made.

Akiva has worked in the agricultural scene for a long time. He raised and sold organic chickens to both small and large businesses including Whole Foods and restaurants. He worked on both the farming side as well as the marketing and development side. He dealt with people , animals and plants and learned what worked and what didn't. He also sat down with farmers as a consultant to help them find their niche and solve their agricultural problems. He discussed finance, bacteria , nutrition, dreams and setbacks. He helped them maneuver through it all , find solutions by using logic and research to come up with plan of action.

Throughout his many years and gaining experience, Akiva learned a lot through trial and error, mentors and research. So when I sat down with him to discuss some of his knowledge, I asked him to take us from seed to harvest, both the business side and the hands-in-the-dirt side.

Here are some important points Akiva made:

  1. Be realistic about the work that goes into gardening/farming. Know your limitations and your expectations. If you are not willing invest with time, hard work and money, maybe this isn't for you. If you can be talked out of something, you weren't meant to do it. You have to be willing to put forth the effort, going the extra mile to make it work and commit to it. Instead, you can become part of a community and you take a different responsibility. You need to ask yourself the important questions.

  2. Do research on soil, ph levels, salinity, composting, potential insects and solutions to various problems. A little reading will go a long way.

  3. Get started. Don't be afraid to fail. Know that there will be set backs. Don't be afraid to try, learn, adjust, and try again. Failure is part of the job.

  4. If you plan on selling or providing for others, know your market. Make your produce above and beyond. Then there is no competition and you can ask for a higher price.

  5. Adjusting nutrition in/on the soil/plants creates a healthier, tastier, higher yielding plant.

  6. 20/20/20 ratio of potassium (sometimes referred to as potash), nitrogen, and phosphorus is a general soil . This needs to be adjusted for different plants.

  7. Know what a brix count is , why it's important and how to adjust it for each plant's needs. Knowing the sugar content (brix count) in a plant's juice can help to explain at what level the plant is absorbing nutrients from the soil.

  8. Get to know your soil, specific stressors (such as hot climate, bugs etc) and learn how to deal with them

  9. Start with heirloom seeds. A variety according to your area. Once you have your own heirloom plants, collect those seeds and continue your crops with those. The seeds in the vegetables in Israel are poor , hybridized, GMO and won't yield much produce if any. Bring heirloom seeds if you can, but beware of international laws for importing seeds. Create seed exchanges with others who are growing heirloom vegetables.

  10. For enriching soil , use compost kitchen scraps, manure such as chicken, rabbit, horse, goat, or sheep. Bird manure (chicken or duck) is very dense and should be diluted. You can mix all of this up to get a more balanced nutritional profile. About 30-40% manure mix to 70% goat or sheep manure is a good ratio.

  11. Rather than relying on mineral supplementation added to the water, make sure your soil is enriched and healthy. Use mineral supplements only as an extra nutritional push when needed . The roots of the plant will only go to where the water/supplement reaches. If , for whatever reason, water is cut off , the plants will suffer. However, if the soil is healthy, the root system will be stronger and the roots will absorb nutrients directly from the soil.

  12. Only deep till the soil every 8 or 10 years. There is no need for more often than that. The top 15 cm of soil holds the microbes necessary for absorption and ph. The lower levels contain the nutrition. You only need to mix (till) to make sure the soil doesn't become too impacted.

  13. Mulching with straw balances the ph, protects the root system, and helps against evaporation.

  14. A Roto-Tiller is an essential tool/investment for small-medium size plots. It helps to mix the soil as well as blend in compost without too much effort.

  15. Plants and animals work together, compliment each other's needs. Plants need the manure, animals eat invasive weeds. But know the work and finances that is entailed for each before investing in animals. You can buy manure from other natural farmers who have animals.

  16. Community gardens work best if one or 2 families are responsible for decision making. All others are assigned tasks, responsibilities based on skills, location, and willingness to work. There will be those who just show up to enjoy the harvested crops.

  17. When using a larger community to support each other, it's best for each farmer to have many vegetables rather than each farmer having just one. In this case, if something happens to that one crop, you won't have others to fall back on. But if each farmer has a variety of smaller crops , they can continue the supply if something goes wrong with one of the crops.

  18. Invest in gardening books, local courses, and /or consult with experienced organic farmers/gardeners. But know that there is not silver bullet. You can do everything you learned and still have failed crops sometimes. Even small gardens will face hardships. This is part of the work. You need to be ready to move past it and start with the next crop. Learn from mistakes and do better next time...

  19. Most information and learning will come from engagement. Get your hands dirty, spend time on the land, understand the soil, bugs , climate, how the sun affects the plants and find solutions to problems when they arise.

  20. There are tools you can buy in order to test mineral levels on plants, fruit and soil. These are good to have on hand, but not a necessity. There are also companies who can do this for you. Also you can just pay attention to the plants and see how they are responding to what you are doing.

  21. Gardening/farming is both a science and an art. this takes time to perfect. Don't give up. Be willing to invest time, money, research and hard work. It pays off in home grown vegetables.

  22. The difference between self sufficiency and sustainability: Sustainable means you can grow your own vegetables, but not rely on it as an income. If your crops fail, it won't affect you having to start over because you have an income from something else. Self sufficient is when you do depend on the crops for your income. It goes back in to the farm in order to further it's progress. Once you are successful in this, you are able to run the farm from it's own produce and create an income for yourself.

  23. Conventional land takes 3-5 years to return to it's natural state. It can be compared to withdrawal from addiction and having to rebuild it's immune system. It needs time , patience and supplementation and in time it will return to it's former healthy natural state .

  24. Organic doesn't always mean the soil is nutrient dense or that the plants are healthy producing tasty healthy fruit. It takes more than eliminating toxic pesticides to be successful in tasty nutritionally dense crops.

  25. Start with a plan. What are your expectations with your garden/plot of land/farm? Do plan on a small scale garden just for fun, or a large scale farm that will create a profit? What about finances? Will this be a group project or a single family? You can always change your plan or scale it up, but you need to start with an initial idea of who, what, how, where and for how long you plan on starting your garden. Factor into this plan your Plan B for when things go wrong, as well as plan c,d,e,f.......... Failure is not a matter of "if", but "when" . When you prepare for this, you are already a few steps ahead.

  26. In order to get started you need to find a plot of land, even if it means taking out your grass in order to plant a garden. If you don't have land, you either need to move or become part of a community garden close by so that it can be closely managed.

  27. Create your own compost with kitchen scraps, manure, straw and earthworms. If you choose to buy ready compost, watch for variations between bags. Also check their source of the raw materials. If it comes from restaurants there will be a problem with salinity. They use too much salt and it will off set the pH of the soil ruining crops for years to come.

  28. Important things to learn for a successful beginning: 1. Financial structure of farming, 2. insects( their preferred foods, life cycle and how to break it), diseases, climate, local stressors, fungi/mold . When you nip the problem in the bud, you are able to get a jump on it and solve it without too much time lapsing and crops lost.

  29. A few important pieces of information Akiva shared with me........ 1. Uptake of nutrients in plants is strongest between 9am -3 pm. This is important to consider when testing the plants for absorption. 2. Fungi and bacteria can be controlled with a neutral pH. You can spray the plant with a water/milk (50/50) and sugar (add to water/milk 50/50) to help with pH and with aphids. Milk is a neutral pH. To get rid of beetles, spray citric acid on the plant. Citric acid eats through their wax coating, so they leave. Dried citrus peels and juice mixed with water is a natural citric acid that can also be used. ( Side note: 3. When you lower the pH inside the human body, it kills "corona". Ivermectin works because it lowers the pH of the body. )

  30. When you have planted a garden and carried through from seed to harvest, and everything that could have or did go wrong along the way, you appreciate the blood, sweat and tears that went into growing that tomato, cucumber etc. Saying a blessing over your food begins to take on a whole new meaning.

Akiva has been using his expertise to move forward with his own farm. He plans on using this farm for growing, teaching and providing food for his niche market. He is open to agricultural consulting in English for those who would like some guidance in starting a farm/garden. If you would like to contact him, please message him on our telegram group @nettleandpinschat Akiva's plan includes opening a Farm-To-Table restaurant using the flavorfull crops he will grow on his farm. I can't wait!! Like I said, living in the south brings uncertainty, but with that there is lots of potential and room to grow. B'atzlacha!! ve B'teyabon! !!בהצלחה ובתאבון

Ps.... With Akiva's permission, I am adding a link to a wonderful in-depth article that was written in Mishpacha Magazine, about Akiva and his family a few years ago. This article tells their story of aliya and their inspiring trust in God, that Akiva and his family bring to living here in Israel.

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