Israeli desert farm pioneer honored for drip irrigation

A pioneer who made arid lands bloom is the recipient of this year’s prestigious World Food Prize. The man, Daniel Hillel, developed drip irrigation techniques that squeeze the most crop out of a drop of water, making farming possible in places where water is scarce.

Hillel’s orchards near his home in Israel are innovation in action. Each tree row is fed by plastic tubes which drip water at the base of the tree.

Irrigating drop by drop, called drip irrigation, has transformed agriculture by dramatically reducing the amount of water needed. Farmers now rely on it in water-scarce regions from Spanish vineyards, to African onion fields, to America’s fruit and salad bowl.

“We in California grow about 50 percent of the fruits and vegetables of the continental United States,” says University of California at Davis hydrologist Jan Hopmans. “And the reason that is possible is because of, indeed, these drip and micro-irrigation techniques.”

Hillel got his start in dry land farming as a pioneer in Israel’s Negev Desert in the 1950s.

“The issue was efficient use of water,” he says, “because land is available. It’s extensive. Water is limited.”

These desert farmers did not have the luxury of running irrigation water through channels to their crops, the way farmers have since ancient times. So Hillel and others gave plants just what they needed, just where they needed it.

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