Photograph by Christine Blau, National Geographic
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Chaim Tzehori is one of the last Shamouti orange farmers in Israel.
Photograph by Christine Blau, National Geographic

One Man’s Quest to Keep the Jaffa Orange Alive

Once Israel’s most famous export, hardly any Jaffa oranges are grown today, for reasons both political and agricultural. But one farmer in Northern Israel refuses to give up.

Chaim Tzehori pulls out his pocket knife to expertly dissect an orange–sweet, thick-skinned and oval-shaped. He proudly offers me the fruit of his labor as we visited in his orchard earlier this spring.

Some of his oranges dot the orchard floor, signaling the nearness of the season’s end. Chaim, now 87, planted these shamouti trees himself 50 years ago in 1965, and while he still climbs the ladders himself to harvest the fruit, he knows his time among the trees will someday come to an end, too.

But standing in the middle of the rows of orange trees, where the scent of citrus hangs as heavy as the last fruit bending its branches, nothing could taste sweeter.

While citrus fruit has been grown in the Middle East for centuries, by the mid-19th century, Arab farmers in the region had developed a winner–the Shamouti, an orange bred to be easy to peel and practically seedless. British consular reports as early as the 1850s mentioned these oranges, grown in the lush orchards surrounding the historic port of Jaffa (now part of Tel Aviv) finding their way to Queen Victoria’s plate by the late 19th century.

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Workers packing Jaffa oranges for export, sometime between 1900 and 1920. Photograph by the American Colony (Jerusalem) Photo Department, courtesy the U.S. Library of Congress

In the early 20th century, orchard workers loaded crates weighing more than 60 kilos (130 pounds) of Jaffa oranges onto camels for transport to the port. Each orange was wrapped individually in paper before setting sail.

Between the World Wars, half the orange groves were owned by Arabs and the other half by Jews, with partnerships and competition forming as more Jews moved in. The Shamouti, nicknamed Jaffa oranges, after their region, quickly became the dominant orange in the area.

And that dominance turned to stardom as more Europeans and Americans discovered the special orange. Celebrities like Ingrid Bergman and Louis Armstrong posed with Jaffa oranges, which were like the Coca-Cola brand of fruit juices, according to the 2009 documentary Jaffa, the Orange’s Clockwork by director Eyal Sivan.

Over time, and through countless political battles, newer varieties of oranges, easier to package and grown on shorter trees that require less climbing began to replace the famed Jaffas of old.

Despite the challenges, one man sticks to his roots. Farmer Chaim Tzehori works the land just like his father, who fled Russia after Stalin and then helped to establish Moshav Ein Vered in 1930–long before the state of Israel existed. A moshav operates like a kibbutz, with communal work in idyllic agricultural surroundings, but allows some private ownership. This specific moshav sits about 45 minutes drive from Jaffa, in the fertile plain region of the Sharon, once covered by sand dunes.

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A box of Jaffa oranges, a pomelo and Mandarins  from the orchard of Chaim Tzemodi. Photograph by Christine Blau, National Geographic

Tzehori’s father planted potatoes and tomatoes, but oranges became the family’s main business by the 1950s, when he started to grow the Shamouti orange. The ability to root deep into the sand helped the Shamouti trees thrive.

Eventually, though, Jaffa, the Orange’s Clockwork explains that the Jaffa orange became a politically-charged fruit: “While the orange become the symbol of the Zionist enterprise and the state of Israel, for Palestinians it symbolises the lost of their homeland and its destruction,” director Eyal Sivan says.

Indeed, as more Jewish immigrants moved in, tension built between the communities, with riots and a strike of Palestinian workers prompting the construction of a new port in the north of Tel Aviv. During the 1948 war, the city’s Arab-majority population of about 65,000 fled, and Jewish immigrants moved into the almost abandoned city.

The Israelis saw an opportunity in the oranges. The new state of Israel re-branded Jaffa oranges as the product of romantic kibbutz life. Workers like Chaim’s father on Moshav Ein Vered found a difficult but fruitful living.

But with less than 5,000 farmers in all of the state of Israel today, the orange that once sat on the plates of royals has a grim future. Some farms in Ein Vered were developed into real estate, to meet the demand of the many people in Israel that want to live on this moshav. “There are about 1,500 people [here], but only 20 or 30 farmers.  No one wants to be a farmer today, there is no money in it,” says Chaim Tzehori.

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Chaim Tzehori stands in his orange orchards. Photograph by Christine Blau, National Geographic

Tzehori’s four children pursued other career paths rather than go into their father’s boutique orange business. His wholesale Jaffa oranges earn only 1 shekel per kilo (about $0.13 per lb) or 5-6 shekels ($0.65 per lb) when sold directly to consumers. “That’s why this life isn’t really worth it,” says Tzehori’s son-in-law Tal Lampert, who works in the insurance business but occasionally helps pick the crop.

Tzehori operates a fruit stand at the Tel Aviv farmers’ market and a few other locations. He speaks softly of the satisfaction of seeing customers’ reactions to the taste of a real Shamouti, and how they come back again and again, “The Sharon is the best place in the world for oranges, I think. I can’t eat them from other places, I’ll know immediately,” he says, standing in the the middle of his two acres of approximately 400 trees.

Many people have urged him to give up on the Shamouti, saying modern tastes have changed.  But Tzehori won’t hear of it.

“To cut the orchard down would be to cut out my heart. I can’t explain it. But people think I’m crazy,” he says.

Christine Blau is a researcher for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Find her on Twitter  and Instagram