Amoro, the locally produced mushroom, has already taken roughly half of the market share from Israeli producers.
Tucked away amid the palm trees in one of the world’s oldest cities, an unadorned white warehouse sits on a dusty plot of land. Inside, air conditioners hum as workers hover over elevated beds of dirt.
They methodically pick out the pearly white domes peeking out from the compost as a strip of neon lights shines overhead. When their work is done, the first locally produced mushrooms in Palestine will be packaged and shipped to Nablus, Ramallah, Jenin, Bethlehem and other cities across the West Bank.
The group of friends had no agricultural background – their studies focused on IT, web development and business – but they researched mushroom-growing techniques and enrolled in classes in Europe on how to cultivate the organic, white fungi
Two of the co-owners ditched their high-paying NGO jobs and immersed themselves in what they soon found to be a sophisticated art form. Mahmoud Kuhail and Sameer Khrishi now work on the farm full-time.
They hope their business will make Palestinians less reliant on Israel and bolster local production. “[In the] donor industry everything you produce is reports and proposals, which nobody even reads,” Kuhail said.
“You don’t feel like you are producing anything for your community and yourself. It’s good money, but you don’t sleep well at night, because you don’t believe in what you do.”
The owners soon found that their product was well received, with consumers showing more interest in locally-farmed goods. “We realised that there’s a lot of demand for our mushrooms because the culture of boycotting Israeli mushrooms was gaining traction,” he said.
“Our parents never bought Israeli goods and we have been boycotting their products ever since I can remember,” Kuhail said. “So with this venture, we hit all our target points: boycotting Israel, and doing something good for the community and for ourselves.”
According to Kuhail, Amoro has already taken roughly half of the market share from Israeli producers. But even this accomplishment had its drawbacks: Palestinian shops and grocery stores were running out of the mushrooms quickly, so the owners decided to expand the farm’s growing area – a decision that brought production to a grinding halt for four months late last year.
The journey of Amoro, named after the Amorites that lived in the area more than 4,000 years ago, has been peppered with bumps in the road. The first of which was finding a piece of suitable land outside of Area C – the most fertile part of the West Bank, which is under complete Israeli control.
“The ongoing Israeli control of Area C, which comprises 60 percent of the West Bank, deprives farmers from essential agricultural and water resources,” said Mahmoud al-Attari, a Palestinian agriculture expert. “The picture is bleak: productivity is down and a lot of farmers are moving away from farming their land to taking up desk jobs.”
Also, the Amoro team needed to find land that they could afford – a difficult task in the Ramallah area, where the men live, and where a recent property boom has skyrocketed the price of a single dunam (1,000 square-metres) of land to $1m.
Jericho, the ancient, sleepy city, home to many Palestinian farms, proved a more sustainable choice, but also meant delays at Israeli checkpoints as they made their way to and from the Jordan Valley.
With the Palestinian borders also under Israeli control, the farm’s founders pay hefty customs duties at Israel’s Ashdod Port to bring in raw materials such as fungal spores.
The compost they recently bought from Holland was held up for more than two months by the Israeli authorities for “security reasons”, costing them extra fines for storage.
Using World Bank data, the Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem (ARIJ), a Bethlehem-based NGO that promotes sustainable development, found that border and documentary compliance procedures imposed on Palestinian exporters are 2.6 times those imposed on their Israeli counterparts, and subject to double the cost associated with these delays.
According to Kuhail, such restrictions are tantamount to Israeli government support for Israeli compost growers, because it forces Palestinian farms such as Amoro to buy from them to avoid customs delays and fines.”It also means competition would be reduced for the Israeli [mushroom] producers, who would go back to owning 100 percent of the market share,” he said.
“We had to stop production for 77 days and that’s a long time.”
The ARIJ estimates the total economic cost of the Israeli occupation of Palestine at approximately $9.5bn a year due to Israeli restrictions on industries and services, infrastructure, access to natural resources, and constraints on movement of goods.
“Israeli [companies or suppliers] exploit restrictions on Palestinians’ ability to produce or purchase goods and services at a competitive price, by providing the Palestinian market with the same goods and services,” said Nur Arafeh, a policy fellow at Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network.
“The Palestinian market thus becomes ‘captive’, filled with Israeli products, and subject to impediments imposed by Israel.”
Since Amoro was founded, Israeli producers have slashed their white button mushroom prices by 45 percent, -two kilos of the fleshy fungus now cost 35 shekels ($9) – a change that Amoro believes is intended to pressure the Palestinian mushroom farmers economically.
“This is another strategy by [the] Israeli producer to get us out of the market,” he said. “We took a remarkable market share from Israeli producers, it meant they didn’t have as big of an opportunity to continue giving us their [rejected] B-quality mushrooms, which they cannot sell in the Israeli market.”
Despite the difficulties, homegrown mushrooms are fast becoming a popular alternative for Palestinian green grocers and restaurants. The Amoro farmers believe their product is more marketable because it goes from harvest into the Palestinian market on the same day, whereas Israeli mushrooms make a longer journey via Israeli and Palestinian distributors.
“Consumers realised the quality difference between the two in terms of shelf life and what they see,” co-owner Khrishi explained. “Compared with our white mushroom, the Israeli product always has blotches, because it takes two or three days before it reaches customers.”
The mushrooms have a growth cycle of 40 days, half of which is for incubation, and the remainder for picking. During incubation, temperatures, humidity and carbon dioxide levels, and watering, are all controlled to simulate the climate conditions conducive to their growth.
Multiple “flushes” or yields from one cycle are also made possible by adding more water and altering the temperature and humidity.
So far the business has not broken even, but the Amoro team remains optimistic as production increases and demand from customers – namely grocers, supermarkets, and some restaurant chefs who want specific sizes of the spongy growths for recipes – rises.
“These days there is more acceptance of Palestinian goods,” Khrishi said. “Local produce is the main pillar of the Palestinian economy, and it paves the path to its independence and sustainability. It is a source of power for all of us.”