Sweet Potatoes and Super Mario

“We’re having a party for Mario upon his retirement from the Israel Organic Farming Organization. And no, we’re not going to eat fruit and vegetables the whole time. This man is the organic Ben-Gurion of Israel, and we’ve decided to allow a few people to tell stories on how this man has affected them and the rest of the world. I want you to send me the story you once told me about the sweet potatoes. But I need it by tonight, so hurry. Lehitraot, Shaul.”

“Shalom Shaul. Here it is. Hug Mario for me. Enjoy the fruits and vegetables. Michael.”

In the late 1980’s, our new kibbutz was growing sweet potatoes in the sand. Everything was going fine, until they started using a carcinogenic spray on the leaves. It was Heptachlor, made in the U.S.A., banned for use in the U.S.A., but happily exported to other countries. I did some research and talked to the other people on the kibbutz about it, and in the end I just couldn’t bring myself to be part of it anymore. I asked Mario about the possibility of having an experimental organic sweet potato field. He was very enthusiastic and said: “Go for it. You’ll see that in the end, the organic crop will not only be healthier, but also tastier, more colorful, more abundant and more economically feasible than the regular crop. And you’ll grow, too.” The other kibbutzniks were very skeptical and said it was a waste of time that would also be a waste of money. Mario told me that I must not give up: “This field won’t be just another field; it will be a role model for other farms, too.”

We planted.

Mario had taught me how to fake out the pests using all sorts of secret weapons in the vicinity of the field, from glue to soap to aluminum foil. We used smell to fool the males, and traps to get the females. I followed his instructions as if they were Halacha. The field was developing nicely; even the leaves were greener than the ones in the non-organic fields.

But one morning – it was Erev Sukkot – something terrible happened. The field had been infested overnight by armies of humongous hawkmoth caterpillars. Tens of thousands of these humongous pinky-width monsters had invaded the field and were munching away. Sweating profusely from near-panic, I went through the field and saw how this crop was being destroyed in front of my very eyes. I held my head in my hands for a few minutes, and then ran back to the kibbutz to call Mario.

“Mario, this is an emergency. The whole field is infested with hawk moths. You must come immediately!”

Hawkmoth Caterpillar

                                                 By Malcolm Tattersall (CC)

Two hours later, he showed up at the field in his car and calmly got out. I shook his dry hand with my sweaty one and we inspected the field. You could almost hear the noise of the leaves being devoured by those tremendous bugs. He walked by himself to the far side of the field and looked around in all directions. Then he came back, put his hand on my shoulder and said: “Don’t do anything. It’ll be okay.” And he got in his car.

I wouldn’t let him close the door. “Don’t do anything? What do you mean ‘Don’t do anything?’ Mario, I might remind you of your own words – this field is not just another field. It’s supposed to be the role model for future farms. If I don’t do anything, the entire crop will be destroyed, I’ll be laughed out of this kibbutz, and we can all say goodbye to the future of local organic farming!”

He got out of the car and put his hand on my shoulder again.

“Michael, let me tell you a story. Once, a few years ago, I got a panic call – just like yours – from a farmer in the Negev who was growing organic potatoes for the first time. His field was infested with Prodenia caterpillars and he was terror-stricken: ‘Mario, drop whatever you’re doing and come to my field immediately! I’m under attack!’ I drove straight to his field, and checked it out. It was totally infested.

‘What can I do? I’m ruined. I’m going to have to spray. We’ll just turn it into a conventional field and forget the organic idea. It was a good experiment, but it failed.’

‘Don’t do anything and everything will turn out fine.’

‘Don’t do anything? Are you crazy? This is my livelihood you’re playing around with!’

I put my hand on his shoulder and said: ‘Look over there in the sky. Do you see that flock of storks? Nature knows very well how to take care of itself. Just like the Prodenia butterflies are migrating, so are the storks. Hashem works in wondrous ways. Don’t do anything.’

I left, the storks came down onto his field and devoured the Prodenia, and he had a bumper crop. So now I’m telling you, too, Michael: Don’t do anything, and let nature provide its own solution. The same force that brought the pests will also bring the solution.”

“Mario,” I said, “that was a great story. Really. But right now and right here, there are no storks in the sky and every hour that passes those sweet potatoes are in greater danger and within a few days we might as well turn the whole field over and call it quits.”

Mario got into his car and closed the door. He started the car, rolled down the window, and said – as he was driving away – “Don’t do anything.”

I stood there, alone in a field of half-leaves and fat caterpillars, almost in tears. I went home – we lived on the other side of the field – and finished building our Sukkah. Two days later, we were woken up early on Chol HaMoed morning in the Sukkah by a beautiful, melodic chirping. “Bee-eaters,” said Tzurit, herself a birder. “They’re migrating.” It took me a few seconds to put two and two together, but soon I jumped out of bed and ran over to the field. In the light of the first rays of sun, I could see that the trees on the far side of the field were blooming, and the bees were buzzing all around them.

The bee-eating birds were swooping down on them and having a feast. It’s too bad I don’t have bees as pests – I thought – and started walking back home. But before I left, a flock of 50 or so crows came swooping over the field and chased away the bee-eaters. They landed in the pest-ridden field, but refused to eat anything. Crows are aggressive and will chase other birds away just for the heck of it, so I wasn’t too optimistic. But within a few minutes, a flock of close to 200 little white cattle egrets chased the crows away, landed in the field, and began pecking away at the caterpillars! They were going crazy, gulping them down by the dozen. They were patrolling the fields, pecking in every possible direction. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was sure it was a dream.

Farming in IsraelI ran home to tell Tzurit what happened. Then I went to shul and remember being moved by the verse in Hallel – “This was from Hashem, it is wondrous in our eyes.”

Later I went back to check the field. I could barely find a caterpillar! The field was saved, and went on to produce a record crop! Just like Mario said, it was healthier, tastier, more colorful, more abundant and more economically successful than the regular crop. We had convinced the skeptics, and had paved the way for other local organic farms.

And I had grown, too. I had seen the intricate way that nature works. The same force that brought the pests also brought the solution. “It’s the finger of God!”

For the first time I had seen with my own eyes that the cycles of time and place are all intertwined. The moths migrate, the birds migrate, the humans migrate (to their Sukkah). And everything had come from one source. I had seen the handiwork of Hashem.

And I had been moved by His prophet Mario.

Michael

From the 1998 archives