Life of an Israeli farmer: Simha Halperin

Jan 15, 2016

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Written By: Hugh T. Ferguson, Photo Taken By: Steve Davis

Chapter I: We are all of one bone

Simha Halperin learned farming from his father-in-law. He learned tolerance, too, from a man who survived the Holocaust and escaped to Israel from Austria.

“He said, ‘A man, he has hands, two legs, and a head,’ ” Simha says. “It does not matter what kind of idea is in his head. If he is Christian, Muslim, or Jew, they are all made of one bone.’ ”

Today, Simha farms outside Galilee, Israel, and does as his father-in-law did, reaching out to Palestinians who farm in the West Bank, to learn from them and to share with them. “For me, working with Palestinians is something usual. My father-in-law taught me to help Palestinians and I say ‘OK’,” Simha says today.

Simha started as a banker, then fell in love with Billa, whose farmer-father eventually captured his heart, too. Simha says the land, like his marriage, calmed him and made him happy, uncertain a life as farming is.

“If there is no rain, and God doesn’t give flowers, and the season’s hot, then there is nothing you can do about that,” Simha says. “You don’t know what it will be in the end. Sometimes the price of produce will fall and other times it will rise. We are something like gamblers playing the farmer’s market.”

He jokes, offering a light take on what can be a tough, uncertain life.

“There are three ways to lose money,” continues Simha, whose entire land in Galilee is devoted to his olive farm, including his home, which hosts a little shop in the foyer selling the oil from the olives he grows, harvests and produces.

“The quick way is gambling, you can go to a casino,” he says, seated at his kitchen table while his wife-business partner tends to shop visitors. “There is also the enjoyment of women, an even quicker way to lose money. And lastly there is the safe way: to be a farmer. That is the safest way to lose money.”

Farming fulfills Simha in a way no other work possibly could.

“I am not working for money,” he confirms to himself and his visitors as well. “No person works solely for money. There is a joy you have.”

Joy that’s not just found in the soil, but in the kindred spirit of the farmer.

Chapter II: A businessman turned farmer 

His career took him to the city, but his youth was pulling him back to the land.

“I was a city man doing business. I was working as a bank manager in a branch. I had never done any farming. My milk and oranges were from a box. Everything was from the store. I didn’t know what farming was,” Simha says.

But before he worked in a bank Simha served in the Israeli army and was stationed near the north border. “I remember there were a lot of olive trees. It was like a picture.”

The picturesque scene was pleasant, but olive oil had left a bad taste — quite literally — in his mouth.

“When I was a child the treatment of olive oil reminded me of the taste of medicine. But in the army I saw tourists taking pictures with the trees, and the olives tasted different.”  

For Simha, olive oil wasn’t even primarily a food source.

“The oil was for the candle in Hanukkah. We didn’t use olive oil every day. When I first tasted olive oil from the village I received it as a present. It tasted smooth and was different from what I knew.”

While he succeeded at banking, life in the city was not something Simha had a passion for. But it wasn’t until his marriage to Billa that he knew it.

Unlike Simha, Billa was raised on a farm and constantly in touch with the land. When they married, with Simha busy at the bank, they decided to build their home next to the farm of Billa’s father, in a pleasant place with many conveniences with a short car ride.

Olives and fresh farm produce were all in Simha’s backyard, now. Gradually as he began to help his father-in-law with the work, his food began to come from the land and not just the store.

“I was enjoying the work and by the time my father-in-law turned 80 he was an expert farmer. But at that age he could no longer do the work that the land required,” Simha says.

This left Simcha at a crossroads. He couldn’t work in a bank and adhere to the unrelenting schedule of farming.

“I finally understood that I could either keep working in the bank and lose the land, or give up my banking career and become a farmer. For me I chose the farm,” he says with a proud grin etched on his welcoming, gregarious face.

Simha’s vision in the beginning was far simpler than what the farm has since become.

“I just thought we could make a little shop for fun. We will sell some things, and my wife can work in the shop. I just wanted to make sure everyone enjoyed the olive oil production,” he says.

Yet what began as a small two-acre plot of land gradually expanded to six and then eight, and the little shop began to consume the new farmer and his wife.

“For two to three years we didn’t sleep. We didn’t know what kind of oil we would end up with. The first time we got the olive oil and we tasted it, it was something we understood was different. We were beginning to understand olive oil is like wine; different kinds of olive trees create different tastes. So as we refined our methods we began to expand.”

While there’s substantial financial risk and a lot of stress on the farm, it’s also a comfort.

“I can’t listen to the phone ring and I don’t like to work on the computer. Fortunately my wife likes to do those things and I can focus on the farm.”

III. Chapter III: Land for a family

For Billa, Israel was her freedom.

Her father the farmer was born in Austria in 1924, and in 1939 his family was threatened by the rise of the Nazi Party. His parents sent him away to pursue an education in Israel. There he learned about agriculture and began to make a life for himself outside of Austria.

At the close of WWII, Billa’s grandmother, grandfather and an aunt were all victims of the Holocaust. The only other members to escape were an aunt and uncle, both siblings of Billa’s father.

By finding a home in a settlement, Billa’s father was able to grow his farm, carve out a life, cultivate the land and raise a family.

Billa grew up happy, working in the same fields today that she did as a child. As she pursued her education she broke for a time to serve in the Israeli army — not a popular thing for girls to do. But Billa felt obliged, serving for nearly four years.

She and Simha married shortly afterward, and then in 1987 adopted their son, their only child. He’s studying in college now and will graduate shortly with degrees in physics and material engineering.

“I don’t really know if he will be a farmer. He loves the farm, and he loves to help me and work some of the land,” Simha says.

It recalls how Simha felt after completing his own service in the army. He was 21 then.

“My father had a little business but I did not want to do business, I wanted to work alone. So after completing some courses at Tel Aviv University I began working in a bank. About one to two days a week we would take classes and study different things about banking. It is funny now because I no longer use any of the classes I learned,” he says.

Billa and Simha know change brings uncertainty like they experienced when they committed to the farm.

“When I first told my wife that I would work on the farm she said we’d be around one another too much and fight. But we have found that with all the work and eight acres of land we actually do not see one another a lot of the day. In a way it is like we have our own jobs.”

Chapter IV: The modern farmer

It’s calm and quiet here. But there’s little about this land that’s static. There’s a lot of waiting. Then harvest, and production — all under this pair’s hands. There are assembly lines in the field, and in the on-site production room where only Simha and Billa toil to bottle the olive oil they produce and sell on-site, just off their family kitchen.

The machines that harvest the olives are manned by as many as seven workers.

“In every farm the olive tree has one good year and one bad year. Since I have over four acres of olive trees the years even out. Each year one area will produce a lot and another will be relatively empty. The next year it switches,” he says.

By organizing the land in this fashion, Simha maintains a pretty regular level of production every year.

Simha has a donkey, but machines rule the land and the harvest. His gear’s in top shape; his accountant advises him on the best time to update and upgrade.

“She gives me advice on when to buy and helps me best utilize the tax code. If the government helps me and I make money, it is better to change equipment and order something I need,” he says.

In the middle of the spread is a large, high-ceiling room. The door blends into one building’s steel-paneled side. Without Simha’s guide, it could easily be overlooked. This is the packing room, where Simha and Billa personally package much of the olive oil that’s sold in the retail room in their house. It’s powered by solar energy, uncluttered, and the floors are as clean as fine china.

With an audio system playing music in the background, it’s easy to feel like you are in your own little world. As Simha demonstrated the use of his bottling machines one day this past summer, the audio system pumped in the 1990 beat of MC Hammer proclaiming, “U can’t touch this.” With all this equipment, it’s a setup few Palestinian farmers could possibly match.    

His work’s so efficient that he is also able to use his farming products as a means to help disadvantaged workers.

“Our packaging is of olive oil in 100-milligram bottles in a nice box. There are of three to four different kinds of olive oil per box. Not far from here’s a village where there is about 200 to 250 people who have mental disabilities, they are restricted different ways. So I like to have them work by helping to package my product. I pay them and in exchange it is something that is good for my heart.”

Chapter V: The Near East Foundation

With a farm fully equipped to handle the stresses of the land, Simha takes time out of his day to help other farmers learn his techniques. He views exchanges with other farmers as a learning opportunity and a chance to bring Palestinians and Israelis together.

Partnering with the Near East Foundation – in their Olive Oil Without Borders project – Simha is one of the organization’s champions in the Israeli region. By participating Simha hopes to help Palestinian farmers improve their techniques and also work to help start a dialogue between the two sides simply as farmers.  

“For me it is nice to take one day out from the business. It was excellent to meet other farmers so we can have dialogs about olives and olive oil. Farmers are farmers. It’s not about politics.”

Nahed Kayed, a Palestinian farmer, said visiting Simcha’s farm inspired him with a dream of beginning to implement an irrigation system for his land so that one day it might be as plentiful.

While Simha and Nahed have met through NEF, their interaction’s been limited by travel restrictions and politics. It’s much easier for Palestinians to visit the Israeli side. Nahed has visited Simha’s farm as part of a group; Simha has not visited Nahed’s spread, and he acknowledges there’s a lot he doesn’t know about farming in the West Bank.

Still, he says issues are universal.

“We have the same problems as the Palestinians, like employing workers and the olive fly. Those things do not have a border,” he says.

Simha notes that the market each region operates in is quite different, and so are many farming techniques.

“Palestinians have another market we don’t have. They can sell their product to Qatar, Saudi Arabia, or Kuwait, Arab countries where we can’t sell. However, I don’t know if they get more money selling to the Arab countries. I understand that they could get more money if they can sell to Europe and the U.S., because they are more rich countries.”  

Israelis’ huge edge is in technology.

“We are working with machines from the beginning, and the Palestinians work with the hand. It is hard to change the farm of the Palestinian to be like the Israeli,” Simha says.

“In a few years I hope the Palestinian land will be more like the Israelis with machines and that they continue to study new innovative methods.”

Chapter VI: Vision

Ironically, solving a political conflict can’t be left in the hands of politicians, according to Simha. It needs to be bound by the two cultures coming together, and working in a business, side-by-side.

“I don’t believe in politics. One day some person is sitting in one chair and then tomorrow somebody else. We are speaking really about business, about what it means to be farmers,” he says.

For Simha, much can be fixed by a stronger, mutually beneficial economy. When people are better provided for, with a better and more consistent income, they want the same things.

“They want to have children, they want to love the children, and they want them to go study. There is no difference between the Palestinian and Israeli.”

What’s most important: That the next generation have an easier time than the people who have grown up during this conflict.

“I want my son to live here if he wants to live here. It will take time but I believe there will be peace. It is my hope, and we need peace. I believe one day there will be no border — but it will take time.

Going forward the most important thing in Simha’s mind is for the two sides to come together and show unity in some shape or form.

“At an exhibition in Italy there was a flag of the Palestinian and a flag of Israel sitting in the same place, Palestinian oil and Israeli oil. For me it was something. ‘Wow,’ I thought to myself. I believe that we – Palestinian and Israeli – will sell something together in one bottle. I believe there is a market of people who believe that the Palestinian and Israeli can sit together and sell something as one.”

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