Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

How Kibbutz Hatzerim Helped Pioneer Drip Irrigation

Kibbutz Hatzerim was founded in 1946 in Israel’s southern Negev Desert. Initially dedicated exclusively to agriculture, the community eventually decided to search for a business or industry to branch out into. At the same time, engineer Simcha Blass was searching for a partner to help commercialize the technology he had just invented: drip irrigation. In 1965, Kibbutz Hatzerim and Blass founded Netafim, which today sells drip irrigation equipment in 110 countries around the world.

In this interview, Naty Barak, a longtime Kibbutz Hatzerim member who worked for Netafim for many years and now works for Orbia, the majority owner of Netafim, tells Irrigation Leader the fascinating story of how this small desert community helped pioneer a technology that has changed irrigated agriculture around the world.

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.

Naty Barak: I am the director of sustainability at Orbia, which is a purpose-driven global company with a commitment to sustainable business development that is tackling complex challenges around the world. Orbia owns 80 percent of Netafim, a famous Israel-based global company that pioneered drip irrigation 55 years ago. I worked with Netafim for most of my adult life. My last position at Netafim was chief sustainability officer.

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about Kibbutz Hatzerim and its history.

Naty Barak: Kibbutz Hatzerim was established in 1946, the same night that 11 kibbutzim were established in the Negev Desert in southern Israel. Kibbutz Hatzerim was founded by a small group of young pioneers who walked to this location, a few miles east of Beersheba. For several years, this was basically a farming community, but it struggled with poor soil and not enough water. One famous event was the salt crisis: The people of the kibbutz discovered that the soil was highly saline and considered abandoning the location and going somewhere else. The government encouraged them to stay, however, arguing that a settlement in the Negev Desert was important for Israel, so they continued to struggle. We started in barren desert with no trees around us. Today, Kibbutz Hatzerim looks like an oasis, with many trees, nice housing, and many young children. 

Naty Barak with drip line installed in a field.

I joined the kibbutz in 1964. I grew up in the city of Haifa, and at a young age, I joined the youth movement. We were concerned with values and ideology and were looking for challenges, purpose, and a way to make a difference. After graduating from high school and finishing my military duty, I decided to join Kibbutz Hatzerim. At that time it was a farming community with 80–90 members. I wanted to be a farmer, too. I always say I was driven by a combination of ideology—I wanted to lead a meaningful life and contribute to the fulfilment of national tasks by growing crops in this area—and, I admit, a desire for adventure. I dreamed about driving a tractor in the open space of the desert and cultivating the land. 

I came here because of the challenges of farming. At the same time, the kibbutz wanted to add to its agricultural production by finding some kind of industry, preferably 

connected to agriculture. We met Simcha Blass, the engineer who invented drip irrigation in 1965, and liked his idea. We thought that if drip irrigation worked, it would answer the immediate challenge in our community, which was also one of the main challenges of Israel as a whole. In 1965, we signed an agreement with the inventor and established Netafim. In January 1966, we started manufacturing drippers and dripper lines, selling them first in Israel and later all over the world. Today, Netafim is one of the five business groups of Orbia, a precision agriculture group. Netafim is a global company, working in 110 countries with 35 subsidiaries, the first and largest of which is our U.S. subsidiary, based in California. We have manufacturing plants in Australia, Brazil, California, Chile, China, India, Mexico, Peru, South Africa, Spain, and Turkey, as well as three plants in Israel. 

Irrigation Leader: Would you explain the concept of a kibbutz?

A close-up of a drip irrigation line.

Naty Barak: The kibbutz is an Israeli experiment in communal living. I see it as a successful one, though some people say it’s an experiment that hasn’t yet failed. I’ve been living in a kibbutz for 55–56 years. The main idea behind a kibbutz is that each member gives according to his ability and receives according to his needs. This is our way of explaining equality. 

A kibbutz provides its members with all their needs. We have a communal dining room that serves three meals a day, 7 days a week, all for free. The kibbutz provides education to the children who are born here from infancy until they graduate from high school; we also support their academic studies. On the kibbutz premises, we have nurseries, kindergartens, and classrooms. We have a dentist and doctors who come twice a week. We are not far from the city, so there is a hospital nearby, but we also have basic medical treatment in our infirmary. We have a laundry that takes care of our clothing. Housing is also provided by the kibbutz. Many members work in the kibbutz, some members work for Netafim, and some work outside the kibbutz. Everyone’s salaries go directly to the kibbutz. I may be a high-ranking executive at a global company and my next-door neighbor may wake up early in the morning to milk the cows, but we have the same standard of housing and the same appliances in our homes. We get a monthly allocation from the kibbutz that we call a personal budget, not a salary; it varies depending on size of family and age, but otherwise it is the same for all members. 

We have cultural activities in the kibbutz. We have a small cafe next to the dining room, and on weekends after lunch or dinner, you can go there to chat and have coffee and cookies. Everything is free, provided by the kibbutz. We have a minimarket that looks like a nice 7-Eleven, where we can get basic products like eggs, milk, sugar, flour, vegetables, and bread for free; for other items, we have to pay, but they are sometimes subsidized by the kibbutz. 

The kibbutz owns a fleet of vehicles that are parked in a central parking lot. If a member of the kibbutz needs a car, they reserve it with an app, then use a code to open a locker with the car key in it, use the car, and then return the key to the locker. If it is a business trip, the cost will be covered 

by the business; if it is a private trip, it will be charged to the member’s personal budget, but it’s a minimal charge by mileage that is subsidized by the kibbutz. I have a company car, and if I decide that I don’t need it, I can let it be used by a member of the kibbutz; if I keep it for myself, I give up the mileage allowance that everyone on the kibbutz gets. 

We have all kinds of systems and rules for how best to share things. I always hesitate to use the word, but it is socialism in the nice sense of the term. I have a feeling that, globally, the pendulum is swinging away from rough-and-tumble capitalism to a more attentive capitalism. We are running a business just as any other business would be managed. We are looking for profit, but we are also caring for people and for the planet. We also talk about idealism, ideology, and values. It all goes together in the kibbutz’s life.

Irrigation Leader: Is Kibbutz Hatzerim still an agricultural community?

Naty Barak: Yes. We used to grow everything: apples, peaches, apricots, potatoes, sugar beets, cotton, and alfalfa. Now we grow only jojoba. One of our businesses is to extract oil from jojoba seeds and sell it to the cosmetics industry. Kibbutz Hatzerim is one of the leading suppliers of jojoba oil in the world. 

Irrigation Leader: What is Kibbutz Hatzerim’s water source?

Naty Barak: For irrigation, we use exclusively recycled wastewater. In Israel, 90 percent of wastewater is recycled by one large treatment facility south of Tel Aviv, which collects all the sewage water from the Tel Aviv metropolitan area and delivers it to the south. In addition, there are around 250 local wastewater treatment facilities. Kibbutz Hatzerim uses water from the treatment facilities at a large military base nearby for irrigation.

The water the kibbutz uses for drinking and domestic use comes from the national network, which delivers water that comes in part from local wells and desalination. In the old days, the main source used to be the Sea of Galilee; the water was transported south by a large water project called the National Water Carrier. Today, our main sources are local wells. We are next to the city of Beersheba, the name of which means seven wells. That refers to the seven wells that were dug by Abraham when he came to this area, so perhaps we are still drinking the same water that Abraham drank thousands of years ago. The source for the national water network today is five large desalination plants along the shores of the Mediterranean. In Israel today, I think 60 percent of the water for domestic use comes from desalination. 

Irrigation Leader: How many people live in the kibbutz today?

Kibbutz Hatzerim in 1947.

Naty Barak: The population is a little less than 1,000. There are about 500 adult members; the remainder are children, temporary residents, and some older parents who have come to live with their adult children. We still accept new members; every year, about five young families join us, mainly the families of people who grew up in the kibbutz, decided to leave, and are now coming back. 

Irrigation Leader: What role did the kibbutz play in creating Netafim, commercializing drip irrigation, and spreading the technology around the world?

Naty Barak: It’s an interesting story. We were looking for an industry, and we assigned the treasurer of the kibbutz, who used to travel to the city, to help identify one. We set some criteria: We didn’t want something that would require a big investment, since we didn’t have much capital at the time. We didn’t want something that would require a lot of labor, because we had a rule that only members of the community could work for us; we could not exploit the labor of people who were not members of the community. We wanted something connected to agriculture. Eventually, Uri Verber, our treasurer, met Simcha Blass, the inventor of drip irrigation. 

The story of how Blass invented drip irrigation is interesting in itself. In the 1930s, he visited a friend in Hadera in northern Israel and saw something strange. He saw a line of trees, one of which was bigger than the others. It was obvious that all the trees were planted at the same time, so he wanted to know why one was so much bigger. He found that the ¾-inch metal pipe that bought water to the house had a small crack in it and was slowly leaking water, drop by drop, next to that specific tree. On the surface, there was just a small stain of moisture on the surface, but as he dug into the soil, he found that the moist area became wider and wider, encompassing the tree’s roots. This gave him the idea for drip irrigation, but to build a device, he had to wait until plastic became popular. He started experimenting and built some strange emitters. Here in my office, I have one of the first emitters that he built in the 1960s. When he saw that his devices worked, he began to look for a partner. He spoke to several kibbutzim in Israel, but no one believed that his technology would work. They told him that it was impossible to grow mature trees by dripping water slowly next to them. He was quite frustrated. However, our kibbutz felt that his technology might be the thing we were looking for.

I remember the general assembly meeting we held after negotiating with him. In the kibbutz, ultimate decision power is in the hands of the members, each of whom has one vote. The idea was presented, and the guy who presented it pointed out that it was not a big investment and did not represent a big risk. We needed to buy a car and a plastic injection machine, but those things could be resold if drip irrigation failed. We had some extra space in one of our existing buildings, so we didn’t need to build anything. We approved the idea, and in January 1966, we started manufacturing. The first installation was on our orchards. It was a tremendous success. We almost doubled our yield in 1 year, to the extent that the farm manager came to us and proposed keeping drip irrigation a secret and having the best yield in the market. His approach was that we were farmers looking for higher yields. Our approach was that we were starting a business and wanted it to grow, so we started selling. I personally wanted to remain a farmer, so it was a few years until I joined the company in 1975. As a farmer, I was responsible for a small field of green peppers, which I used drip irrigation to grow.

At the beginning, we were concerned mainly with the Israeli market, and we started selling our product in Israel. We had help from the extension service of the Ministry of Agriculture. The results made the ministry realize that we had an innovation that could help Israeli agriculture as a whole. There was also an extension service employee from California who was on a sabbatical here. He saw our drip irrigation technology and asked us to design a system, which he took back with him to San Diego County, where he used it to grow avocados on hilly terrain. 

Eventually, we started working all over the world. We hesitated, because we didn’t know whether becoming a global player in the market would interfere with the kibbutz’s ideology. At the beginning, we worked mainly with local representatives. In 1981, we established our first subsidiary outside of Israel, Netafim Irrigation Incorporated, in Fresno, California, where it is still based. We worked mainly in the developed world with advanced farmers, large farms, and high-value crops. Then we realized that we could not neglect emerging markets, and we started working a lot in the developing world as well.

Today, our top market is still the United States, but our second-largest market is India, which is growing quickly. In India, we work mainly with small farmers—tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of them—and with basic food crops. In the beginning, it was avocados, pistachios, olive oil, wine grapes, table grapes, cherry tomatoes, and strawberries. Today our main crops are corn, sugarcane, potatoes, cassava, and soybeans. 

From day 1, we were talking about saving water all over the world. We were talking about food security and water scarcity before almost anyone else. Today, everyone is concerned with food security, water scarcity, and greenhouse gas emissions. In the last 15 years, we have conducted experiments with rice and have achieved higher yields with less water and less arsenic uptake in the rice grain. Most importantly, we produce zero greenhouse gas emissions. When you are growing rice with flood irrigation, which is the most popular way to irrigate it, there are a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. Today, the world is talking more about precision agriculture, climate-smart agriculture, digital farming, and irrigation with a brain. We have many products based on digital technology that help farmers make the right decisions about irrigation. 

Naty Barak is director of sustainability at Orbia. He can be contacted at naty.barak@orbia.com.