Thousands of dunams of potato-crop land were saved from the severe damages of the recent frost - precisely because they were grown in accordance with Shemittah rules.

The Otzar HaAretz enterprise announces that despite the loss of some 80% of this year's potato crop due to frost, tens of thousands of its potato-growing dunams in the western Negev were saved.  Senior Otzar HaAretz agronomist Moti Shomron explains why:

"It is forbidden to plant in the Shemittah year, and therefore the farmers following the Otzar HaAretz plan were forced to plant their potato saplings earlier than usual this year.  What happened then was that the potato plants sprouted earlier than usual and had time to grow and become stronger before the frost hit.  When the frost came, the leaves were hurt, but not the bulbs - and thus the potato crop was saved."

In contrast, most farmers in Israel planted their potato crops at the regular time, i.e., the end of September, Shomron said, "and unfortunately, most of them are now forced to deal with small, damaged potatoes, and in fact, most of the crop has been destroyed."

It is estimated that four out of every five tons of potential potatoes for this year have been lost.

Otzar HaAretz is a semi-public enterprise that enables the observance of the strict Bilblical laws of the Shemittah year.  The Torah stipulates that every seventh year, Jews must not work the Land of Israel and it must lie fallow.  The year is known as Shemittah, from the root meaning to "drop" or "abandon."  In the Shemittah of 1889, rabbis of the Land of Israel agreed to temporarily sell parts of the Land to non-Jews, so that certain agricultural activities could be carried out.  As the national economy grew and the potential losses -including the very destruction of the fledgling Jewish community - became more threatening, the dispensation became more widespread and institutionalized, yet never universally accepted. 

Another solution that has been instituted, though never on as large a scale as this year, is that of the Otzar HaAretz initiative, known as Otzar Beit Din (Rabbinical Court Treasury). Based on the concept that produce grown in the seventh year is not forbidden, but is rather ownerless and may be taken for personal use, the Otzar Beit Din solution involves the public gathering of fruits in a large-scale manner and their sale in a public, not-for-profit manner.

The running of this enterprise requires the recruitment of both farmers willing to abide by its rules and consumers who are willing to commit to acquiring a certain minimum of produce during the course of the year.  The produce grown in this manner has the status of "kedushat shvi'it," i.e., it is sacred and must be handled with extra care - and specifically, must not be thrown out in a degrading manner.  Only consumers who are willing to take the extra care necessary for the consumption of the sacred fruits and vegetables are candidates for Otzar HaAretz.

Despite the difficulties, 180 stores have agreed to sell Otzar HaAretz produce, thus solving many problems at once: The need for Arab-grown produce has been lessened, many farmers are able to continue supporting their families without violating Shemittah laws, the national agricultural economy is not harmed, and Shemittah is observed throughout the country.

Rabbi Yehuda Amichai, head of the Torah and Land Institute - formerly of Gush Katif - which oversees Otzar HaAretz, said, "We have merited this year to see G-d's miracles and how His will guides us in all our ways.  I am happy to be a witness to this 'agricultural miracle' that proves how G-d 'pays back' those who follow His laws.  At the same time, we are sorry for the many farmers in Israel whose crops were ruined in the frost..."

Some 30,000 tons of potatoes have been destroyed so far because of the frost

For more information on Otzar HaAretz and Shemittah, click here.