OSU delegation to study Israeli agriculture methods

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The Journal Record
by Janice Francis-Smith

Dana Kursh, vice consul for the consulate general of Israel, insists that her country’s vegetables taste better than American vegetables. Next month, a delegation from Oklahoma State University will find out if she’s right – and if so, why.

James Stiegler, professor and head of OSU’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, will lead a delegation that will visit Israel on Oct. 6-17, as part of an ongoing exchange of information between researchers and business people in Oklahoma and Israel.

Stiegler will be joined by associate professors Timothy Bowser, specializing in food processing; Paul Weckler, biomachinery; and Thomas Phillips, stored product pests; as well as research scientist Siobhan Reilly, specializing in microbiology (Reilly also owns a private company called Food Protech) and Barbara Charlet from the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. Rob McClendon from public television station OETA will accompany the group, videotaping footage for an upcoming show about the mission.

“I am in America for three years,” said Kursh, whose office in Houston reaches out to businesses and researchers in Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arkansas and Louisiana in an attempt to increase trade and partnerships between the United States and Israel.

“One of the things I miss the most from Israel is the vegetables,” said Kursh. “One of the things that (makes) Israel unique is that we have the best of the breed – we are trying to provide vegetables and fruits that grow big, that look amazingly but taste amazingly. And if I am comparing to the American, they look amazingly, but unfortunately they taste a bit less. I tell you, I’m going back home (soon), and the first thing that I’m longing to is a big, gigantic Israeli salad … Our tomatoes much tastier than American tomatoes.”

That’s not a slight to American vegetables, nor is it just homesickness, said Kursh. Israeli vegetables are specifically engineered to taste better. Sophisticated methods of crossbreeding have developed seed varieties that are resistant to disease and provide higher and better-quality yields, even with less water in hot climates.

Israeli researchers have also paid close attention to devising the most effective irrigation techniques and means of protecting crops from being contaminated by terrorists. Likewise, Israel has found success in breeding disease-resistant poultry and cattle which produce high milk yields that are rich in protein and fat.

Kursh said necessity has pushed Israel to excel in the agricultural field. As a small country – about one-ninth the size of Oklahoma, she said – Israel has few natural resources.

“With so few resources, we have to use our brains to find ways to maximize that,” said Kursh. “Hopefully, we can learn from one another and both of us can excel.”

Since 1998, ODAFF and the Oklahoma Israel Exchange have worked to identify agricultural projects the two countries can work on together. In 1999, an Oklahoma Agricultural Mission attended Agritec, a trade show in Israel. A number of Israeli agricultural specialists have since participated in workshops, conferences, and trade-related meetings in Oklahoma. Gov. Brad Henry visited Israel for an agricultural trade show last year.

Next month’s trip is being conducted in conjunction with BARD, the United States-Israel Binational Agricultural Research and Development Fund, said Kursh. Since the fund’s inception in 1979, BARD has funded more than 870 projects in 42 states.

“One of these projects has been done by an Oklahoma City person, Bill Sheldon, and he’s involved with a person in one of the Israeli kibbutz, kind of a village where you share all the land together and everybody cultivates the land together,” said Kursh. “They’re now developing some ornamental fish, like fish to put in the aquarium.”

Oklahomans are also working with a mini-dairy in the village of Pladot. “They’re going to share experience with a company … and share their techniques of developing a yogurt kind of cheese very tasty in Israel,” she said.