Shamir Promotes Giant Dates in Israel Farm Export Plan

Israeli Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir is drawing on his background in the technology industry as he seeks to make the country’s farm products equally competitive in export markets.

Shamir, an ex-chairman of Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd., is drafting a law that will give agricultural exporters the kind of tax breaks and grants that technology companies already enjoy. He plans to submit it to the cabinet “within a few months.”

“At the moment there is no mechanism that encourages farmers to export,” Shamir said in an interview at his headquarters in Beit Dagan, south of Tel Aviv. “When you look at other countries, like Spain and Morocco, their agricultural exports are much bigger, both in absolute and proportional terms. Why them and not us?”

The bulk of Israeli exports are industrial, with agriculture accounting for only 1.5 percent of last year’s total, according to official figures. Almost 70 percent of fresh agricultural exports went to the European Union, with the Russia and the U.S. the other biggest markets.

While Israel can’t compete on price with other countries for staple produce, it has developed niche crops that can draw top dollar, Shamir said. Examples include purple carrots, and tomatoes for the ketchup industry that dry while still on the plant, cutting costs.

The ministry’s research institute is working on doubling the size of Medjool dates, to as large as 8 centimeters, he said, offering a regular-sized one from a dish on his desk.

Picked Yesterday

“Taste this. This was picked maybe yesterday,” said Shamir, whose office is surrounded by large tracts of land for agricultural research. “It’s hard to get one as good as this in Israel. The best go to export. If you bring an 8-centimeter date that tastes as good as this one, people will be willing to pay for it.”

Shamir, whose father Yitzhak was prime minister in the 1980s and early 1990s, moved from business to politics before the January 2013 elections, joining Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party as his No. 2. An electrical engineer by education, he became agriculture minister in March.

Shamir said he’s planning a government-backed investment fund, like the Yozma Venture Capital Ltd. fund of the 1990s which invested in technology companies, that will partner with private investors to finance agricultural businesses.

Other plans include extending industrial export-insurance programs to agriculture, and developing simple ways for farmers to hedge against exchange-rate changes.

“We are looking at all these avenues,” Shamir said. “You have to create motivation that says: I want exports, don’t just go for the domestic market.”