Agricultural Minister Shalom Simhon is working to fulfill the dreams of those who long to leave the city with its traffic jams and pollution, and earn a living working land of their own: The government is expected soon to approve the minister's proposal for absorbing new pioneers in peripheral areas, complete with land grants and benefits.
According to the proposal, the government will grant 100, 80-dunams (20 acres) plots in existing communities, mostly in the Negev and Arava, for agricultural use.
Not all those currently farming these areas welcomed the proposal, however. Some emphasized water and manpower shortages, not to mention the hard work involved in agriculture, though quality of life and Zionist aims of settling the Negev were also noted.
The aim is to settle 100 new farmers a year, over a period of 10 years. To encourage settlements to take on new members, the proposal also includes land redistribution which will enable the settlements to expand.
Candidates will have to pass the acceptance committee of the settlement they wish to join, of course. Then they will receive their plot, of which 45 dunams (11 acres) will be developed for agriculture with government assistance. Newcomers will also receive benefits in water quotas and grants for infrastructure, as well as training.
In 2008-2010 alone 44 new families settled in peripheral communities, mostly in the Negev and Arava and some in the Golan Heights and Jordan Valley. Simhon said the proposal recognized the importance of these areas and the need to bolster them. Taking on young families will ensure continuity, while government support will strengthen economic and social activity in the entire region, he said.
"One of the Agricultural Ministry's main aims is to train the next generation of Israeli farmers," Simhon said. "Though it is not easy being a farmer, agriculture is still an attractive option even for the young generation."
Farmers in the Arava were surprised to hear about the agricultural minister's proposal, and some even spoke out against it.
"It’s a joke," said Shai Hevron from Moshav Hatzeva. "There isn't enough water for even one more farmer in the Arava."
In addition to the water shortage and lack of migrant labor, there is also a shortage of land, especially in the older settlements. "At present there are 45 families in the moshav who are waiting to be granted land so they can live here," said Hevron, who has been farming for 35 years and grows mangoes in poly-tunnels.
Other farmers responded positively to the proposal. "One of the greatest Zionist acts is to settle the Negev – and more than that, to farm the Negev," said Shaul Gutman, welcoming anyone who wants to join the southern farmers. However, he too noted the difficulties, due mostly to the State's attitude to farmers, in his opinion.
"If new farmers come, it will greatly improve the area," said Ronen Ben-Haim, who grows tomatoes. But he also avoids painting too rosy a picture.
"It's very hard work," he said. "On one hand, expenses have risen significantly. On the other hand, there is a price freeze for most of the year. But the most important thing is production, quality of life and the experience of doing."
The proposal is expected to be approved during a special government session to be held in 10 days' time in Kibbutz Deganya, which is celebrating 100 years of the kibbutz movement. The government will ask the director-general of the Ministry of Agriculture and budgetary officer in the Finance Ministry to prepare within 60 days a program for absorbing these new pioneers.
Yaron Sasson contributed to this report