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The Willy Wonka of Farming

Updated: Dec 30, 2019

Many articles have been written about this little modest farm in the southwestern Negev over the last 15 years. But I have the privilege of praising this magical place as one of its employees. I have been working as a guide at Shvil Hasalat (The Salad Trail) for about a year now. My job, along with about ten other guides, is to show visitors around the farm and introduce them to the awesome contribution Israel is providing to the world when it comes to agriculture and technology. The farm is a sort of interactive agricultural museum. In the sense that it represents the latest innovations developed by Israel that are being used by farmers across the country, and now across the globe.

Uri Alon is my boss. This is his farm. To describe Uri best would be to say he's someone between David Ben Gurion, Willy Wonka and Old McDonald. What Uri has created with his farm is no less than magical with it's effects both on the visitors and on the western Negev. I have been told countless times by visitors how this farm has affected them on a very deep level. Either by bringing back wonderful memories of their childhood or by touching their soul and connecting them even closer to the Land of Israel, to it's people and to their dream of making Israel a strong Jewish nation.

We begin the tour by telling a bit of history of the region and how it was that Uri came to build this "Field of Dreams". As we continue the tour we explain how Israel has made the desert bloom by using Israeli know-how and chutzpa to push past obstacles such as harsh desert conditions and no local water source. As we move from greenhouse to field to garden, the visitors can pick and eat right from the vine or dig up roots such as carrots or potatoes. This is the most nutritious, fresh flavorful food you'll find (unless you grow it yourself) .

The message of this wonderful farm is simple: to celebrate love of farming in the land of Israel. The offshoot of this ,contains a lot more than that: sustainability, peace, farm-to-table, urban gardening, sharing of knowledge and brotherhood.

This is a rare place where you will see a mix of groups from every spectrum of society. We have representatives coming from all over the world to learn and then go on to share their new found knowledge with their respective communities. Christians, Jews, Arabs, Buddists, religious and secular, Germans, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Beduin, Americans, Canadians, Austrailians , Russians, South and Central Americans, Europeans, ... The list goes on.

Politics are never brought to the table. People seem to leave their political views on the bus and just enjoy the sheer pleasure of roaming in between rows of tomatoes, challenging their friends with hot peppers , taste testing herbs and berries and releasing our Pigeons of Peace.

Soldiers come to the farm for a couple of hours of "down" time. Being surrounded by vegetation is therapeutic for our guys and gals constantly having to defend our borders from our relentless enemies . They get to let down their guard, relax, and just enjoy being 18 year olds, even if it's just for a short time. I've watched them transform from feeing tired and guarded to feeling curious , opening up and laughing .

We have groups of disabled elderly, first graders, teen groups, bike riders, university students, politicians, bank managers, families, bar/bat mitzvah trips, scouts, volunteers, professors, scientists, farmers, chefs, and everyone in-between . This is the place to watch it all unfold , come together and come alive.

I've had people thank me with tears in their eyes. I've seen people return multiple times and i've heard over and over how the tour of the farm was the best part of their whole trip to Israel. People get in touch with that little girl or little boy inside of them they lost so long ago. The one who was full of joy and laughter, but got buried with the complexities of life.

Here they become "kids" again and explore and begin to shed years in a matter of hours. It truly is magical, and I get to see it over and over again. Many school kids come from cities where they've never seen vegetables grow . Others never eat fresh vegetables or fruit at home. This is an amazing way of getting them excited about gardening, biology, science, nature and healthy eating. I've had many people ask me "Where are the Oompa Loompas?" Because this place really does evoke the feeling of Willy Wonka's magical chocolate factory , but in farm form.

Uri also created a "Master Chef" activity at his farm. Two groups have a limited time to go all over the farm gathering edible leaves and flowers, fruits, vegetables and herbs. They bring them back to the stationing area and start creating a meal to be judged on creativity , taste and presentation. People get so excited and competitive, it ends up causing hilarious moments and good old fashioned fun. Using raw vegetation for the meals and date tree and banana leaves as serving platters, they come up with meals worthy of a photo shoot.

The farm has a very laid back feel to it , although it's a very organized place. Groups are booked ahead of time according to the language they speak with a specific guide fluent in that language. Many people chose to have lunch at the farm, either bringing their own or having it custom made for them in the kitchen. The farm is open rain or shine, all week long and on some holidays .

When Gaza starts to shoot rockets, we get an order to close from the security office, just like all the other businesses in the area. However, farms and fields must continue to be maintained and the loss of income hurts families and businesses in the area, including Uri's. Tours are cancelled and we close down until we're told it's "clear skies". This can happen a couple of times a year and no one is reimbursed by the government for the work lost.

But once the onslaught is over (for the meantime), the phone immediately starts ringing and we begin booking tours again. Sadly ,some groups have put our area on their danger list and take us off their list of tourist stops , rockets or no. This hurts the image of the farms in the area. We live in a beautiful, peaceful ,quiet ,rural area . When it's quiet from Gaza, life continues without trouble. So we always ask people to "tell a friend" about the farm and share their experience so that people won't be scared and will continue to come. Without tourists , the business can't continue.

Uri has done such an amazing job with his farm, it would be a shame to ever see it come to an end. He didn't ask me to write something about his farm, and I don't get anything for doing this, other than the satisfaction of knowing that people will continue to benefit from this magical place. Some of my kids ask to come along to work with me because they have so much fun being there and being a part of the magic. They love interacting with the visitors, telling stories, showing the groups around and sharing some of the secrets of the farm.

In support of his local community, Uri also has a display of beautiful art and natural soaps, olive oil , honey and tea made by local crafters, which make the perfect gift to bring home to friends and family. So come on by when you're planning your next trip to Israel . We'd love to see you and share some of the magic. And make sure to tell a friend.

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