An iconic Israeli agricultural company part of the early national effort to “make the desert bloom,” as the Zionist catchphrase goes, is now turning to an unconventional crop: marijuana.
Founded in the 1960s, Netafim was the first popularizer of drip irrigation technology, which enables growers to control the amount of water their plants receive by watering the roots. Netafim buoyed the early Israeli economy by enabling the young state to grow vegetables in the desert, which were then shipped to Europe in the winter. Now the company is marketing its system to marijuana growers.
Netafim recently made its pitch at Cannetch, a global conference in Tel Aviv covering every aspect of the medical marijuana industry.
“Someone has to grow it,” Netafim chief agronomist Dubi Raz said of medical marijuana at Cannatech, “and we are the ones to be the partners for this.”
Marijuana, especially medical marijuana, must be cultivated in a highly controlled environment, which Netafim specializes in creating through irrigation and greenhouse technologies.
Netafim’s involvement is just one part of the way Israeli companies are seeking to lead the cannabis revolution, taking advantage of comparatively lax government regulations to grow, test, market and export medical marijuana.
Yet beyond industry events, the company has been reluctant to broadcast its involvement in the booming marijuana agriculture industry. A video about the future of the company on its web site touted drones and satellites as the agriculture technology of the future, but made no mention of marijuana, on its way to become a global cash crop.
Reached by the Forward, a Netafim spokesperson declined an interview, saying the company is “just entering the market and prefer to be interviewed on the subject at a later stage when we will have more to say.”
While some legacy Israeli companies and institutions are eager to tout their new forays into the marijuana industry, others are wary of the the drug’s lingering reputation as an illicit substance. Even the Israeli government grappled with concerns over how promoting marijuana innovation would affect is image. For example, it was initially reluctant to approve medical marijuana for export for fear of being seen as the country that sends weapons and drugs abroad, said Saul Kaye of Israel Cannabis, the group that puts on Cannatech. But the financial incentive trumped these concerns; Israel is now poised to approve export in the coming months.
If Netafim positions itself as a leader in marijuana agriculture technology, it would be an image shift for the company, which made its name — synonymous with Israeli innovation in agriculture — by growing produce in the early days of the state. It now claims to be the world’s largest irrigation company.
Netafim’s story begins with Simcha Blass, an Israeli engineer and inventor. Drip irrigation had been in use for many years before Blass came onto the scene, but his technology helped to modernize these early systems by using plastic parts to regulate the flow.
Blass’s technology was first used at Hatzerim, a kibbutz, or collective farming community, on the Gaza border. His partnership with the kibbutz lead to the founding of Netafim, which worked extensively in other Jewish communities in the Negev.
According to the company’s web site, Netafim turned the desert into productive farm land that produced vegetables, melons and flowers.
In the 1970s, Netafim helped Israeli farmers grow cotton for the first time, and its technology was eventually used for the purpose in the U.S., Spain, Greece and Australia, China and India.
Today, Netafim’s sprinklers, greenhouses and irrigation technology is used all over the world. According to Raz’s presentation at Cannatech, the company employs 4,300 people around the globe, and has manufacturing sites in Australia, the United States, Mexico, South Africa and India.
Yet while Netafim is well known in the large scale agriculture industry, it hasn’t yet made significant inroads with small famers such as those who grow marijuana, according to one irrigation specialist.
Pete Luchsinger, who sells marijuana irrigation merchandise online at Cannabisirrigationsupply.com, said that his small customers don’t typically ask for Netafim products, even though he sells some of the company’s valves on his site.
He said that marijuana growers are “very picky” about how their plants are grown, making drip irrigation a natural solution.
At Raz’s presentation at Cannetch, he talked about the need for medical marijuana to be grown in controlled environments for safety reasons, and how Netafim could help.
“We are passionate to do this in cannabis like in any other crop we do,” said Raz. “We have the experience to make a better product for all of us.”
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.