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At Harvest Time in Israel, There's No One to Pick the Fruit

Laborers stay in shelters or flee the area pelted by rockets, leaving growers with rotting crops.

August 04, 2006|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

METULLA, Israel — For fruit grower Haim Bierenboim, troubles are mounting by the bushel.

His orchards lie next to the border in the latest battle zone, with Katyusha rockets and mortar rounds falling routinely. His workers, many of them contract laborers from Thailand, are afraid to go out to pick nectarines and other fruits. So some of the crops are beginning to rot on the trees.

"It's very difficult," Bierenboim said. "I have a lot of problems with the workers. They don't want to work. They only want to stay in the shelter."

Along with the usual vagaries of a farming life -- the weather, the bugs, disease and fickle forces of the market -- growers in Israel's northern Galilee region are struggling to overcome the effects of the conflict with Hezbollah militants in nearby Lebanon in a bid to salvage their crops.

Industry officials estimate that fruit growers already have lost more than $20 million in earnings during the nearly three-week conflict because of their inability to harvest. And with rockets continuing to rain down, and the hired help fleeing, the situation seems unlikely to improve.

Many of the Thai workers fled the area after the Thai Embassy directed its citizens to get out of range of the Hezbollah rockets.

Thai workers have become a regular feature in the Galilee fields since May 2000, when Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon. At the time, many of the field hands were Lebanese who crossed into Israel to work during the day and returned home in the afternoon. But Israel shut down the border crossing when it departed, and it remains closed.

The exodus of laborers has left growers with too little manpower to harvest and package the fruit at a moment when certain crops, such as peaches and plums, are ripening. Some farmers have hired Arab workers from elsewhere in Israel. Others have tried to make do on their own, but are already chalking up losses.

"You work for these days to pick the apples and peaches, and you can't do it," said Yossi Levit, whose family has coaxed sweet fruit from the stony earth here for a century.

The comparatively cool temperatures in the border highlands make Metulla a hospitable environment for growing apples and other fruit. Visitors are greeted at the entrance to town by a row of giant apple sculptures.

Some of the Levit family's orchards have been off-limits for days, since the Israeli army widened its offensive to target Hezbollah outposts across the border from Metulla.

The military closed the area nearest the border and has maneuvered tanks and armored vehicles through the orchards' narrow rows, destroying many of the fruit trees despite the farmers' pleas to stay out, said Levit, 34.

"Today you go and look -- it's like war," he said. "You sit there and cry."

As he spoke, Levit stood outside another of his apple orchards, planted with red delicious and a variety he called "gold," that remains open. He pointed just beyond the rows of trees into Lebanese territory, a few hundred yards away.

The family's holdings once extended that far, he said, but got cut off after Israel's border was drawn when the Jewish state was established in 1948. For that reason, he said, David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, remains an unpopular figure in the Levit household.

Levit said that the worker shortage and fear of rocket attacks also had curtailed the family's fruit-packing operations.

The northern Galilee area has been pummeled by scores of Katyusha rockets since the conflict erupted July 12. The attacks were particularly heavy in Metulla and Kiryat Shemona on Sunday, and Levit said he hadn't reopened the packinghouse.

All but five of his 31 foreign workers have fled and some of the Thai workers who have stayed in the area prefer the safety of the bomb shelter to working in the groves, which hug the border in easy range of Katyushas and mortar rounds.

Bierenboim said he had tried to keep his employees on the job by offering a bonus, raising their daily pay to $34 from $23. It helped a little, Bierenboim said, but he is still able to muster just five or six of his 15 workers.

"They are very afraid," he said.

As he spoke, Bierenboim's cellphone rang with a call from a fellow grower who was desperate to find pickers. Bierenboim answered that he had only six workers on the job, and none to spare.

On Monday, four of the workers sorted through plastic crates filled with nectarines in a steel-shelled packinghouse on the edge of Metulla. Under normal circumstances, Bierenboim said, the daily haul would be 5 to 7 tons. Now, it is half that.

Giora Sela, chief executive of Israel's fruit growers' association, said the full extent of the losses would not be known for months. No one knows how long the fighting will last, a factor that will determine how long the farmers must stay away from their crops.

In addition, Sela said, farmers have been unable to spray insecticides, and that may leave fruit vulnerable to future damage by bugs, such as the Mediterranean fruit fly. And the large numbers of people displaced from their homes -- either moving to shelters or staying with relatives -- has altered food-shopping habits and cut into fruit sales, spelling more bad news for growers, he said.

"We cannot pick and we cannot sell," Sela said.

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