Israeli frankincense farmer cashes in on rare honey
An Israeli farmer has cashed in by making exotic honey from a rare tree that produces frankincense—the resin once worth its weight in gold and venerated in the Bible. But the farm's location in a far-flung West Bank settlement has left a bitter taste in at least one investor's mouth.
Guy Erlich's Balm of Gilead Farm is home to 1,000 threatened Boswellia sacra—the perfume-producing desert shrub mentioned in the Bible. He hopes these and his cornucopia of other medicinal plants will yield remedies for human ills—and even the conflict with the Palestinians.
But the farm's West Bank address, 6 kilometers (4 miles) from the Dead Sea, could hinder his project to cultivate and study threatened desert plants. The Palestinians and the vast majority of the international community consider Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, along with their use of local natural resources, to be illegal.
Ehrlich rejected such criticism, saying his work is for the benefit of everyone.
"I focus on plants that few other people in the world cultivate. That's how I have a chance to succeed in the years to come," he said. "These are also very important plants, and if they're not cultivated they'll disappear."
Boswellia sacra is native to the deserts of northern Somalia, Yemen and Oman, and is threatened by overharvesting of its precious resin, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Mature Boswellia trees are scored to extract the resin, which hardens into lumps ranging from white to pale green in color. Top grade frankincense can sell for hundreds of dollars per kilogram (pound).
Most frankincense comes from trees tapped in the wild, rather than grown on plantations. The tree is not indigenous to the Levant, but its resin has been valued in the region for millennia as a highly prized aromatic used in medicine and rituals.
It was burned as part of religious ceremonies throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, and was one of the ingredients mentioned in the Bible for the incense sacrifice in the ancient Jewish Temples. It was famously given as a gift to the newborn Jesus by the Magi, and still plays a central role in Orthodox Christian church ceremonies. The alleys around Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified, entombed and resurrected, are redolent of the frankincense that vendors burn to entice pilgrims to buy chunks of the yellow resin.
While his Boswellia trees are still too young to produce frankincense, Erlich struck upon honey as a possible source of revenue for his operation.
His first batch of single-source honey made from the desert plants' tiny flowers sold for $1,000 a kilogram (nearly $500 a pound).
The amber-hued, exceptionally sweet honey has earthy undertones and a slightly astringent finish. In less than a month, Erlich says he exhausted his initial four kilogram (9 pound) stock, selling most of it to customers in the United States.
"I've started a waiting list for orders," he said.
Yet politics always looms in the background. Erlich said a global, Palestinian-led effort to boycott settlement goods has taken a toll on his business, with a major American investor jumping ship a couple of years ago out of concern about the boycott threat.
The European Union, Israel's largest trading partner, does not allow settlement products to say "Made in Israel." While it does not ban them, it requires that produce, including honey, be accurately labeled.
Despite international anti-settlement sentiment, Erlich said he hopes to foster cooperation with his Palestinian neighbors and turn his farm into a research center for medicinal plants. He also is growing 10,000 Commiphora gileadensis, the fragrant biblical "Balm of Gilead" shrub and namesake of the farm.
"I would be very happy to one day see this as an international project," he said, the Palestinian city of Jericho behind him in the distance. "We're sitting at a triangle of borders: we have Palestine, we have Jordan, and we have Israel.
"If my plants can also serve as a catalyst to unite Israelis and Palestinians, and perhaps other neighbors around, then I am all for it," he added.
Jericho's Palestinian governor, Majid Fityani, dismissed such a notion, saying the issue is political, not economic.
"Israeli settlements are the embodiment of the Israeli occupation of our land," Fityani said. "This settler has stolen Palestinian land and if he is honest he would have left our land and returned to his country, Israel."
Erlich and others are starting to look to the Boswellia's medicinal properties.
Besides aromatic compounds and the hallucinogen incensyl acetate, frankincense has an anti-inflammatory compound called boswellic acid, said Jason Eslamieh, an Arizona botanist and author of several publications about the plant. The resin is a cocktail of complex organic compounds, and "it will take many, many years to really figure out what exactly is in frankincense that will be helpful," Eslamieh said.
Clinical research has shown that boswellic acid can sometimes reduce inflammation in humans. But much remains unknown. A university in Muscat, Oman, is hosting what is touted as the first international conference about the medicinal benefits of frankincense later this month. Erlich said he doesn't plan to attend.
Eslamieh said that growing demand for frankincense in traditional Chinese other alternative medicines has helped put "an incredible amount of stress on the natural habitat of the Boswellia." For now, farms like Erlich's are rare.
Boswellia trees take around 10 years to become mature enough to be tapped for their resin. Erlich's oldest plants are still years away from that point.
In the meantime, Erlich sent the Frankincense honey to a Tel Aviv University laboratory to test what active compounds from the plant are present.
While he's pleased to have found a profitable byproduct from the young trees, he still has a hurdle to overcome ahead of his next honey harvest.
"I'm personally a bit afraid of bees, but it looks like I'll have to get over it," he said.
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