Lowdermilk and the Land

Impressions of a Gentile Soil Conservationist


The story of the regeneration of the Land of Israel – its soil, trees and plants, flora and fruits – is one of the greatest stories in the history of regenerative agriculture. It is an undeniable ecological marvel that has inspired Jew and gentile alike.

Walter Clay Lowdermilk

One such gentile was one of the world’s leading soil conservationists – an American by the name of Walter Clay Lowdermilk. In many countries, inappropriate land usage and abuse of natural resources lead to dehumanizing situations of poverty, famine and death. Mankind, as he put it, will destroy the basis of its food supply by irresponsibly squandering its natural resources. 

Lowdermilk dedicated his life to helping countries throughout the world protect, reclaim and maximize the usage of their lands in order to better feed their populations. Beginning in the 1920s, he dedicated his 50-year career to this cause, working in 34 countries as an expert advocate of fruitful relationships between people, their lands and their natural resources. He worked with the Belgian Relief Effort after World War I, in China in the 1920s to help avert famine, and with the Soil Conservation Service in Italy in the 1930s.

In 1939, Lowdermilk traveled to Mandatory Palestine on a fact-finding mission. His plan was to analyze soil in a climate that was similar to that of California’s Dust Bowl, which he hoped to develop. Nothing prepared him for what he saw. Seeing the incredible revitalization of the Land wrought by Jewish pioneers with little background in agriculture, he was awed. He was witnessing a miracle – before his very eyes!

Walter Lowdermilk. (Photo: David Eldan/Wikimedia Commons)

Twain’s tirade

Like most Americans of his time, Lowdermilk’s assumptions about the state of the Holy Land were shaped by one of America’s greatest writers, Mark Twain. In 1867, more than a decade before the founding of the first modern Jewish agricultural settlement of Petach Tikvah, Twain joined a chartered vessel of American travelers through Europe and the Holy Land. The book he would publish two years later, The Innocents Abroad or The New Pilgrim’s Progress, chronicled these travels in his inimitable and humorous way. A bestseller, it was his most popular book during his lifetime. 

Twain’s description of the Land was bitingly harsh. He was shocked by the desolation of the Holy Land, writing: “There was hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of worthless soil, had almost deserted the country. No landscape existing is more tiresome to the eye than that which bounds the approaches to Jerusalem. The only difference between the roads and the surrounding country, perhaps, is that there are more rocks on the roads than in the surrounding country. Palestine is desolate and unlovely…”

A land comes alive

This all started to change in the 1880s, when Jewish pioneers began building agricultural settlements in the desolate and marsh-infested Land. By the time Lowdermilk arrived on his inaugural visit he would attest: “When Jewish colonists first began their work in 1882… the soil had eroded down to bedrock in over one half of the hills. Streams across the coastal plain would choke with erosional debris from the hills to form pestilential marshes infested with dreaded malaria… Those who can read the record that has been written in the Land know that this state of decadence is not normal.” 

He marveled at what the pioneers had achieved: “The country is evolving toward a modern, scientifically directed and richly diversified economy with fruits, vegetables, poultry and dairy products… Rural Palestine is becoming less and less like trans-Jordan, Syria and Iraq, and more like Denmark, Holland and part of the United States” (The Promised Land, 1944).

Lowdermilk was so moved by the miraculous achievements of the Jewish pioneers that he and his wife eventually decided to become full participants in the Zionist enterprise. In 1944, he outlined a local water development plan which became known as the “Lowdermilk plan”. In the 1950s, he settled in Israel, and his plan and expertise would contribute significantly to the building of Israel’s National Water Carrier. His contributions were recognized by the renowned Technion University of the Sciences in Haifa, where a department was named in his honor. He was a true lover of Zion. 

Walter Lowdermilk and Chaim Halperin, the first director general of the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture. (Photo: Théodore Brauner/Wikimedia Commons)

What would Lowdermilk say today, 75 years after the establishment of the State? Israel has accomplished the seemingly impossible, transforming a land of scarce resources into a water surplus oasis! A world leader in desalination, drip-irrigation and water recycling, Israel has reshaped the once-barren soil into one of the most lush, fruit-yielding areas in the world. Having planted over 250 million trees, a country that was barren of trees only 150 years ago is now one of the only countries in the world with more trees today than a century ago.

A covenant between a land and a people

How can we explain this seemingly impossible rebirth of the Land? The answer, it seems, lies less in the realm of the rational and physical than in the mystical and metaphysical. It is the fulfillment of Divine promise and ancient prophecy.  

“I will give to you, and to your seed after you, the Land of your sojournings, all the Land of Canaan for an everlasting possession, and I will be your G-d” (Bereishit 17:8). Rabbeinu Bechayei explains that the unusual phrase לַאֲחֻזַּת עוֹלָם, “an everlasting possession”, is a great sign of G-d’s providence over the people of Israel. For from the day they were exiled from their land, no other nation has been able to inhabit and settle it in their place. The Land remains desolate and destroyed until her children return.1 

There is a remarkable reciprocal relationship between the Jewish people and the Land – an inexplicable love affair between a people and a place unparalleled in the annals of human history. Just as the Jewish people have never forgotten the Land, praying incessantly to return to Zion and Jerusalem, the Land never forgot her children. She remained loyal, never allowing any other people to cultivate her.  

Tu BiShvat and ‘seeing the light’

On Tu BiShvat, the Jewish people plant trees and practically celebrate the ongoing love affair between a people and their Land – a Land which has once again miraculously come alive. 

In this edition of HaMizrachi, we explore the Jewish people’s responsibility to be a “light unto the nations” – a nation illuminating the world with spiritual and moral light. Walter Clay Lowdermilk understood that Israel was destined to fulfill this role. “If we were interested in the regeneration of man, let all the righteous forces on earth support these settlements in Palestine as a wholesome example for the backward Near East, and indeed for all who seek to work out a permanent adjustment of people to their lands.” 

May we soon see the day when the entire world is enlightened by the light of the Land, when “many nations shall go and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the Mount of Hashem, to the House of the G-d of Ya’akov, that He may instruct us in His ways, and that we may walk in His paths.’” (Michah 4:2)

Tu BiShvat Sameach!


1 Ramban on Vayikra 26:32 makes the same point, seeing this as a blessing within a curse.


Rabbi Doron Perez is the Executive Chairman of World Mizrachi.

© 2024 World Mizrachi

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