Arava Institute Welcomes Dr. Oren Hoffman

Agroecologist Dr. Oren Hoffman
The Arava Institute recently welcomed agroecologist Oren Hoffman as the new Director of the Center for Sustainable Agriculture, taking over from renowned agronomist, Elaine Solowey, who founded the Center in 1987. In this post, we are extremely excited to introduce Dr. Hoffman to the Arava Institute community, as well as shine a spotlight on Dr. Solowey’s many accomplishments and the improbable path that led her to the Arava Institute.    Dr. Oren Hoffman  Oren was raised right here on Kibbutz Ketura. Oren never thought about ecology as a child. ”Growing up, I just called it nature.” With his love of the outdoors and exposure to farming as a child, Oren pursued an undergraduate degree in agriculture at the Hebrew University. However, Oren was motivated to take a more holistic, nature-centered focus in his professional pursuits, rather than focusing only on production means, crop yields and profitability. He decided to pursue an ecology PhD at Ben-Gurion University after finishing his degree in agriculture. Upon finishing his PhD in 2016, he did post-doctoral work at UC Davis, where he studied how different agricultural practices affect soil health and ecology. In joining the Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Oren has come full circle, returning from California to Kibbutz Ketura, where it all began for him. He is excited to work on a number of interesting projects and initiatives, among them:  
  • work on the Center’s Marula Tree orchard. The Marula, a fruit-bearing deciduous originally from Africa, has proved extremely resilient to the southern Arava’s hyper-arid environment. One unique aspect of the Marula is its enormous seeds. While that dims its prospects as a tree that can be harvested for its fruit, Oren is enthusiastic about the prospect of harvesting valuable oil from the large seeds. 
Dr. Elaine Solowey  Elaine’s path to the Arava Institute was certainly an interesting one. Born and raised in the U.S., Elaine began her career as a tree surgeon after finishing a degree in commercial horticulture.  Elaine decided to move to Israel in 1971. “There were only two million people in Israel at the time, and things were pretty primitive,” Elaine recalled with a chuckle. Her next few years were anything but a laughing matter, however, as she found herself spending a great deal of time in bomb shelters, living on the Golan Heights in the throes of the Yom Kippur War. She caught pneumonia on several occasions due to the harsh winter conditions. Desperate to find a remedy, a doctor gave her life-altering (and perhaps lifesaving) advice: go south. She has not looked back since.  To her telling, there were only 13 trees when Elaine arrived at Kibbutz Ketura. And it is largely thanks to Elaine’s remarkable persistence that the Arava Institute’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture has survived and thrived. In the early years, Elaine tried growing every species she could get her hands on – upwards of 500 by her account – but for the vast majority of trees, the salinity of the water was simply too much for them to bear for longer than 7-8 years. When asked about her proudest accomplishments at the Arava Institute, Elaine cited several major projects:  
  • the Argania project, which suffered many setbacks, including at one point the total loss of all the trees, only to see it recover after Elaine obtained an additional 1,000 seeds from Morocco. 
  • the Kibbutz Ketura date orchard, in which Elaine herself worked until 1985.  
  • the ancient dates. Alongside the commercial success of the date orchard in her early days, Elaine received international acclaim when she was able to sprout a date palm now called Methuselah from a 2,000-year-old date seed found during excavations of Masada in the mid 1960’s. 
  • The Ramon Airport Parking Lots. After others failed, Elaine was asked to take over the planting of all trees and shrubbery at the Ramon Airport Parking Lots. She succeeded using a carefully researched combination of poinsietta regina, palo verde, and tamarisk trees.  
When asked whether she is glad that she moved to Israel, Elaine was unequivocal: “I don’t regret moving here at all,” she said. “I’m proud that I made Aliyah, and I’m proud that I moved to the Arava.”  Elaine continues at the Institute as a researcher emerita while sharing the work now with Oren and Noah Martinsen, the assistant director of the center. Clearly Oren has an excellent mentor and role model in Elaine, and we are extremely pleased to welcome him to lead the next generation of  agricultural research at the Arava Institute.             

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