WSJ: What inspired you to choose a career in agriculture?
DR. HILLEL: I was born in Los Angeles in 1930 at the start of the Great Depression. At an early age, I moved with my family to Palestine—a part of which would eventually become the state of Israel. At age 9, I was sent to live on a kibbutz, and I learned the reality and challenges of farming in arid conditions. I fell in love with the land, the soil, the ever-changing weather and open spaces. The miracle of irrigation was a revelation for me. I have kept this love all my life, and it became my vocation and avocation.
WSJ: At what point did your focus shift to drip-irrigation methods?
DR. HILLEL: After I completed my studies at Hebrew University [in the late 1950s], I began to develop, together with colleagues, ideas to improve the efficiency of soil and water management in arid conditions. Traditional methods of irrigation focused on flooding the land so as to saturate the soil, but this meant crops were alternately subjected to an excess of water and then to gradual desiccation.
But we realized through drip irrigation, by applying water to the rooting zone of crops very gradually, drop by drop, the soil is never saturated nor ever allowed to desiccate. Consequently, the system becomes more sustainable, water is used more efficiently and farmers could get much more crop per drop.
WSJ: How did you take the idea of drip irrigation as a concept and apply it to the real world? What challenges did you face in its application?
DR. HILLEL: We were lucky enough to be developing our ideas during the 1960s plastics boom just as low-cost weathering-resistant plastics became available. While earlier the soil could only be irrigated by flooding or via expensive portable metallic pipes, the invention of low-cost plastic made it possible to apply small doses of water to the soil continuously, so we could dictate how much water exactly the plants would be provided, at a rate commensurate with their changing needs.