Having spent the previous morning renewing our connection with the soil of The Land by picking cherries, we would spend our last morning visiting a dairy farm – but not just an ordinary farm with ordinary cows. We were off to visit The Robotic Dairy at Avnei Eitan. ‘Visit the farm and hear how this kibbutz dairy farm transitioned from manual milking with human operation, to fully robotic techniques in which the cows decide when to be milked.’ Imagine that: self-motivated cows.
No matter how ‘robotic’ a refet (shed) is, cows being cows, there will always be a certain inevitable bovine-ness about such an enterprise. We had been at similar dairies in the past, where the cows are milked by machine. But here the cows enter a ‘robotic machine,’ in which they are fed and bathed while they are milked (under time pressure to leave after they are done with the latter), all the while being observed and monitored for health reasons by someone sitting in the nearby office. Somebody. There are only two ‘somebodies’ in residence at this dairy, Leora and Nechamia, to care for and profit from seventy cows.
And then, standing by the pungent aroma of eau de refet, we learned a little about the economics of farm life in The Land. Now that they are up to seventy cows, our couple needed a second (Dutch-made) robotic machine. How could they afford another one? Simple. Buy one dirt-cheap from another dairy farmer who was going out of business. There are lots of them going out of business, not just dairy farmers but all manner of agro-types. It’s tough working the land (not just in The Land). It’s tough being a little guy working the land. Here you have one couple all by their lonesome with seventy cows to manage, and, by their own admission, they are barely keeping their heads above water. In fact, what’s their profit margin? Tourism. Inviting tour groups to come in and look around is what enables Leora and Nechamia to stay in business. There are some kind of price controls for dairy in place now, but these are supposed to be lifted in a few years, and then who knows what will happen.
A few weeks before, Barbara and I were at friends’ Shabbat table and the discussion at hand revolved around American trade policy and the efficacy of tariffs in solving trade imbalance. I reminded our hosts of Adam Smith’s famous dictum. (Please tell me you know who Adam Smith was.) If you’re producing something and selling it for $10, and someone else in another town or another country can make the same product and sell it for $7, inevitably, invariably, that person will wind up with the business – which is not a bad thing, as the cost of living will go down for everyone and you are at liberty to make something else.
Now we were witnesses to the shoe on the other foot. Normally, I’m sitting in my apartment in Ma’ale Adumim with a newspaper open, reading about the high cost-of-living, that a certain Israeli dairy product costs less in Berlin than it would at our local supermarket. (No comment about why any self-respecting Jew would want to be in Berlin to find this out.) And usually, I’m on the side of let’s-find-a-way-to-lower-the price-of-XYZ.
But there we were, face-to-face with the ‘cause’ of the problem, local dairy farmers trying to make a living. I would be mad as hell if I heard that thieves had stolen their cattle and put them out of business. Why should I be less upset if they went belly-up because of foreign competition or by the machinations of some conglomerate? Either way, the land would lie fallow, and that’s not a good thing. Maybe the price controls, keeping certain products from being sold below an artificially high price and allowing Leora and Nechamia’s dairy farm to stay open, are a good thing. Or maybe not. Hard decisions.
One more place to visit along the way. We came down from the Golan and headed west to Yokneam and the Morad Winery. It’s not really a winery because they don’t make wine, as in from grapes. (The same way one makes tea only from the leaves of the camelia sinensis plant, not from random herbs.) What this family-run business (with an infusion of capital from another family who no own a share of the enterprise) produces are wine-like beverages and liqueurs using different fruits as a base. After watching their little promotional film, we were each given a tiny cup to sample some of their libations. We got just a little taste of each one, but after ten or so tastes……..
Somewhere along the line, I began singing to myself a little ditty we learned in elementary school:
You can get good milk from a brown-skin cow,
The color of its skin doesn’t matter any how…
And then I realized: that’s wrong! It maybe PC, but it’s wrong, at least in The Land. All the cows on Leora and Nechamia’s dairy farm are black and white Holsteins. If you see a brown cow grazing contentedly in a pasture, sooner or later that poor creature will be served up on someone else’s dinner plate. Then again, agriculture was not a hot topic in the environs of Mosholu Parkway in The Bronx, at least in my day.
There’s a sizable mall in Yokneam, right by the main road, and that’s where we stopped for lunch. Jackie (remember her!) was hoping to get us in and out chic-choc, so that those few who had joined us in Binyamina could catch a train. But unless one could make do with falafel/schwarma (no way!) or pizza (wish I could, but I can’t), the only other kosher option was Café Greg, where they cut each piece of fruit by hand – or so the manager said, after Jackie yelled at him, to explain the painfully slow service.
The rest you may assume. We left several people off at the Binyamina train station and headed down to Jerusalem. All we had to do was drag our suitcases off the tour bus and onto a #174 for the journey back to Ma’ale Adumim. Our luggage was definitely heavier than when we came – too much impulse shopping: one bottle of Matar rosé, three bottles of Morad liqueur, copious quantities of DeKarina chocolate, one jar of honey from a vendor high on top of Mount Bental, several containers of cherries from the orchard at Ein Zivan, and one piece of decorative fabric from a shop in the Aniam Artist Village to place on our dining room table. That’s a lot to smush into our suitcases.
What I also brought back is a better sense of life on The Golan, not just as a buffer zone to ward off the Syrians, as a source of our precious drinking water, or as a quiet getaway for otherwise harried Israelis from the middle of the country. The area under Israel control is tiny: forty miles from north to south, ten miles east to west. The number of people living there is a little over 45,000, half Jewish and half Druze, so that the population density per square mile is equivalent to the number of people living within fifty yards of where we live. The only community that can qualify as a town is Katzrin, with a population of about 7,000. Everything else is either a moshav, a kibbutz, or a Druze village.
So who lives up there? Without trying to create a stereotype, let’s just say that most of them would not be comfortable living in Tel Aviv, and, conversely, anybody you might see hanging out at the outdoor café at the corner of Nordau and Dizengoff in the White City would immediately become stir-crazy in the little ‘Italian’ joint where we had lunch in Katzrin. Some people thrive where it’s quiet and restful; some people need to be away from the crowd. Some people……… Anyway, that’s The Golan, a tiny sliver of land that it behooves us to retain, if we know what’s good for us. I’m glad we went once; I’m glad we went twice. Who knows what else there is for us to explore?