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A Green Farm for Cheese Thrives in the Desert
A Green Farm for Cheese Thrives in the Desert
By Adam Dickter / Sci-Tech Today Like this on Facebook Tweet this Link thison Linkedin Link this on Google Plus

RAMAT HANEGEV, ISRAEL -- The extra-dry Negev desert isn't an ideal place to settle down and start a dairy farm. But driven by a pioneer spirit, that's exactly what Anat and Daniel Kornmehl did 14 years ago when they left Jerusalem, purchased 100 goats, and set up on a rocky hillside near the town of Sde Boker.

They are now a major supplier of goat cheese to restaurants in Tel Aviv, producing 1,500 liters, or about 400 gallons, a week, ten months a year. They also operate a dairy restaurant for tourists on the premises. Because they love the land of Israel, they explain that they could never cause harm to its environment.

Artificial Wetland

That's why the Kornmehls have worked with experts to create a green way to dispose of the considerable amount of high-fat-content waste water, ensuring that it doesn't seep into the water table. Rain in this arid region amounts to just four inches a year, but the potential evaporation rate from the heat is as high as six feet.

"We don't want to hurt the land," said Anat Kornmehl, an eighth generation Israeli. "The land is in very poor condition, very cold and dry [in the winter] and very hot in the summer. We don't want to damage it more. We believe this is the right way to do it."

The solution they found involves an 18-foot square artificial wetland. Waste water is filtered through plants, then through a layer of coarse sand and another layer of gravel, all about two feet high. The emerging water is then collected and used, for now, to water shrubbery on the grounds.

When the four-year-old project is expanded next year, the Kornmehls hope the recycled water will be used to irrigate the grazing field for their herd. It will not be clean enough, however, for human or animal consumption.

"As the waste travels through the wetland, it picks up bacteria" that feast on the goat-milk by-product, explains Mike Travis, a native of Eau Claire, Wisconsin who designed and built the wetland as part of his doctoral work in environmental studies at Ben-Gurion University in Sde Boker. "The plant roots are a good place for the bacteria to live, but mostly it is the bacteria that do all the work."

Water Resource Management

The process has been used before in other contexts. "The question was, how would it work in a desert, and how would it work with heavy dairy waste," said Travis.

By starting their business here, the Kornmehls are helping to fulfill the dream of David Ben-Gurion, the founding father of Israel and its first prime minister, who wanted Jewish immigrants to settle the Negev, which comprises more than half of Israel's land mass. Ben Gurion's former home in the Negev is just a short drive from the Kornmehls' farm.

But so far, his dream has been mostly unrealized: Only about eight percent of Israelis, some 650,000 people, live there now. Thanks to the fast-growing technology of water resource management, the area is becoming an increasing draw for entrepreneurs, such as vintners, botanists, farmers, and even luxury hotels.

When There's A Will There's A Whey

The Kornmehls are learning new ways to avoid waste as well. Whey, a byproduct of the milk, is now channeled to the goat pens and used as an added nutrient.

Here on the frontier, there is a sense of amity among the farmers. When a large tour bus pulled up at her restaurant, which was full at the time, Anat Kornmehl referred them to another cheese farm down the road. "I think of them as colleagues, not rivals," she said.

Adam Dickter, writing for Sci-Tech Today, is taking part in a journalists mission to Israel sponsored by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

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