Israeli frankincense farmer cashes in on rare honey
Almog, West Bank – 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, 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 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 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.