The place to grow
Efrat Noy and Yoav Zaiden, Kaima Farm, Hukuk
Interview and photography by Veronica Yudkevich
It was meant to be. At the same moment in time six friends from Hukuk have found themselves ready for new beginnings and eager for social involvement. That was the onset of the Kaima Farm in Hukuk, taking after the Kaima project in Beit Zait, whose objective is to provide employment, in a supportive and loving environment, for teenagers that cannot adapt within the regular system and become disconnected from their families and communities.
Efrat, Esti, Orna, Yoav, Assaf, and Nir registered the nonprofit at the end of 2015 and boldly plunged into the unchartered waters, armed only with their love of pedagogy and agriculture.
The farm was built on a site where an organic farm used to be, and all its produce is completely pesticide free, even from those approved for organic farming. The farm delivers a weekly box to Misgav, Kfar Vradim, and the Galilee Panhandle areas.
I met with Efrat and Yoav on the farm about a year after their launch to talk about the successes and the challenges ahead.
You’re pretty hard on yourselves - you’re not even using organic pesticides, and you employ teenagers that have dropped out of the system. Are you intentionally seeking challenges?
Yoav: Every day I wake up and ask myself those questions anew. But in my heart I know that this is the right way, however difficult it might be.
Efrat: I think that organic farming and education are built around similar principles. We have a great place where vegetables and people can grow. At the end of the day all you need is variety, trust and support, while accepting and allowing natural processes to take their course. It works for vegetables, and it works for people. I think it’s the only way.
The photos on your site have this idyllic feel about them. When does the reality hit you?
Yoav: None of the photos on our site is staged; we’re not interested in misrepresenting the reality. However, our choice to work with temporary and inexperienced employees does bring up occasional difficulties. We sometimes spend part of the time allocated to farm work on communication with the teens, on dealing with their hardships or refusal to work. The summer heat and the rain and mud in the winter are also quite challenging. We have moments when we break down and moments when everything is wonderful.
Efrat: None of us has business or management backgrounds and those are the most important topics for us to improve on, because, apart from the weather, the biggest challenge is managing a financially successful business. With a bigger budget many of the difficulties would have been easy to solve. Currently, limited financial reserves weaken the whole operation.
How do you deal with the challenges brought by the ever-changing staff?
Yoav: We’re cooperating with the Kaima project in Beit Zait, whose staff is much more experienced than us. In addition, every one of us has already worked with groups or teenagers, and we have regular staff meetings to share information, views, and impressions and to figure out coping strategies. But we have also put our trust in the journey, while taking deep breaths.
Efrat: Every one of us has changed tremendously during the past year. Weeding a vegetable patch together has turned out to be a great meditation; working so close to the earth and following the growth of a crop fills the soul - it’s such a blessing. We have no intention of changing or treating anybody; we just provide employment, and the teenagers that choose to stay here are taking responsibility and getting payed, which in turn empowers them.
I assume that your product is not for everyone. Tell me about your clients.
Efrat: We’re using the Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) model that only works on a small scale, the complete opposite to industrialized agriculture. Today the majority of the people can’t grow vegetables for themselves, so we offer to be our customers’ garden, maintain personal communication and grow seasonal, healthy, pesticide-free produce. In return the customers must commit; it’s a reciprocal relationship. The customer puts her trust in us by subscribing to a weekly or bi-weekly box of produce and agrees to take whatever grows at the moment, even if it’s not exactly what she was planning to get. That allows us to plan ahead and estimate the number of clients, because from the moment we order the plants until the fruit ripens, about six months go by. This arrangement doesn’t suit all, because people have become used to supermarket tomatoes - available throughout the year, perfect looking but tasteless and soulless.
We also try to raise awareness, keep in touch with our clients and learn from our mistakes. Many times people find us after they have a baby and are suddenly more mindful of nutrition and the toxins in food. We offer good, competitive prices for organic produce, and after the first bite the doubts are gone.
Yoav: We want to reacquaint people with living according to the seasons, although some of our boxes are supplemented with basic vegetables, like tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes and onions, even when they’re not in season.
Efrat: That’s a fun aspect of our work, restoring the knowledge that everybody had until a few decades ago. A whole generation grew up without a clue about the seasons and that you can still eat the fruit even if it has a black dot here or there.
The first, tough year is over. Any insights or plans for the future?
Yoav: Soon we’re launching a Headstart crowdfunding campaign, mainly to raise money to repay our debt from the Sade Shefa farm purchase, so we can concentrate solely on running the business. Any extra cash will enable us to invest further in things like cold storage, a beehive, etc.
There are still many areas we need to improve on, starting from the technical side of organizing better working conditions and up to business management, customer care, raising funds, and revising production. This is important for us, as people who put their hearts into this project, so we can continue doing this for years, and also for the teens that work here.
Efrat: 10% of the teenagers in Israel are dropping out of formal and informal educational institutions, and we want them and their parents to know that we exist. So, hopefully, the campaign will help reach more teenagers and other people that could benefit from working on the farm.
Our remote location raises further obstacles. At the moment we have young employees coming from Hazor Haglilit, Safed, and Tiberias by public transportation, and we pick them up from the main road junction.
We also hope that the publicity will help bring more clients to sustain the business and to benefit more families. We’re offering an attractive location for tourists, one that combines eco-sustainability with a social business. Groups come here to learn about organic agriculture, permaculture, and social enterprises; the visit includes a field tour, vegetable picking, and a communal meal.
What makes it all worth it?
Efrat: To see a smiling teen eating a carrot covered with dirt. At the beginning these kids barely touch the food or don’t eat vegetables at all; in a month they wolf it down and later start cooking themselves. Observing the growing crops, and the youngsters that have found a good place for themselves, and knowing that many from the Hukuk community are eating our produce, brings me huge satisfaction. I also came to realize that my family’s weekly vegetable box somehow fulfills my existential need to provide a base for nutrition security. It just makes me feel good; I wouldn't know how to manage without it.