Date palms

Bagged dates thrive in the continual sunshine found in Bard Valley, Calif.

Growing the 'Fruit of Kings' in the low desert

Dates are becoming big business for some in Arizona and California 11 million pounds of dates produced last year in U.S. Date palms can produce 10,000 pounds per acre

Valentine’s Day has come and gone, but here’s to DATES. They’re more than a romantic rendezvous or an appointment on a calendar — they’re a big business, and continuing to grow even larger in the low desert commercial production areas in Yuma, Ariz., plus Imperial and Riverside counties in California.

There’s seldom a quiet moment on Medjool date farms, no matter on which side of the Colorado River they are grown. From the first work of the year, dethorning at the end of the dormant period, to early spring pollination, followed by training the fruit arms, ringing, and bagging, and ultimately, an always crazy fall harvest, there’s always work to be done.

While the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) has had many uses over its 5,000 year history, it’s most popular use is providing shelter, fuel, and materials for construction-weaving-basket making. But it’s most important reason for existence is the food it provides.

And for the 100 growers in California, plus a growing number in Arizona, the public’s increasing recognition of this healthy food means a rapidly-expanding fresh date industry, particularly for the Medjool variety.

According to the Bard Valley Medjool Date Growers Association (BVMDGA), a consortium of family growers responsible for producing more than 60 percent of Medjools grown in the U.S., 11 million pounds of this particular Fruit of Kings was produced last season.

This unique microclimate is the right place to grow the right product, according to BVMDGA marketing efforts, which say, “Bard Valley, nestled where California and Arizona meet, lies in a sun-drenched corner of the Southwest where Medjool date gardens are nourished by the Colorado’s high water table and ever-present sunshine.”

And while the Coachella Valley, located southeast of Indio, is still the largest overall date growing district, the geographic dateline is shifting eastward into the Yuma area, following the footsteps of pioneer Gusmar Nunez of the Imperial Date Gardens, who boldly began expansion planting there in the 1990s.

“There are 5,000 acres already planted in Arizona, and a good rule of thumb is you get 10,000 pounds of production per acre,” says Dave Mansheim, manager of Bard Date Company, custom growers and packers, and current BVMDGA president.

“It’s safe to say that the industry, in total, represents in excess of 40 million pounds annually, representing something north of $140 million,” says John Haydock, chief executive officer of DatePac (owners of the Natural Delights brand). 

Lorrie Cooper is manager of the California Date Commission (CDC) at Indio, where they predict another volume increase this year and throughout the decade ahead. “Growers have seen lots of new growth coming on board — perhaps a little at a time, but there is a constant uptick, and it’s a good time to be in the industry,” she says.

33 Different Types

According to CDC statistics, 33 different types of dates are grown in the Coachella Valley. The majority of date palms are the Deglet Noor variety, which like hotter and dryer conditions, while the Medjool variety prevails in the Yuma Valley’s humidity.

Emphasizing that dates are not a get-rich-quick scheme, but a long-term that may take a dozen years to reach a break-even point, Mansheim is optimistic about the industry’s future. “We’re on a double-digit growth curve, and I anticipate a 15 percent to 20 percent increase in volume over the next 5 to 10 years,” he says.

Once new trees enter commercial production, date palms can continuously bear fruit for decades. The average lifespan for a date palm is 200 years. When it grows to a height of 80 feet, it is no longer economically feasible to harvest.

But if it were that easy — plant, produce, pick — everybody would be a date farmer. In real life, problems exist, ranging from water to labor supply issues, along with changing climate conditions that can bring pests and disease.

Lots of gallons of water (200 gallons a day per palm in Yuma, according to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times) have allegedly affected local aquifers.

“We’re trying to stay ahead of the curve and are converting from flood irrigation to drip, which will save us 1 to 1½ acre feet of water annually,” says Mansheim. “Not only will this be a significant cost reduction, it’s part of our effort at sustainability. Our food value output, versus our cost input, makes dates a sustainable product — if we continue to maintain our efficiency.”

When it comes to pests and diseases, he knocks on wood … literally. “Currently, in the lower desert areas we have no natural pests, and not much insect pressure in Yuma, Bard, and Imperial. In Coachella, they get a bit more insect pressure. With no major pests attacking our crop, we don’t use any pesticides on our trees.”

California growers contend with a continual battle involving the carob moth, and a new problem wit the hibiscus pink mealybug. “That little bugger will go after everything, from date palms to citrus,” says Cooper. “There’s nothing it doesn’t like, so everyone is working to find a way to eradicate this bug from the valley.”

There is continual monitoring for two other specific pests that have made their presence known. Red palm weevil, a native of North Africa, was found a couple of years ago in the Long Beach area (although not seen again since), and two specimens of South American palm weevil have shown up, one near Mexicali and the other north of Yuma. It’s believed they were brought there on banana plants from Central America.

Constant Monitoring

“We work with the Department of Agriculture to constantly monitor for these pests, because they could decimate the industry,” says Mansheim.

Labor issues are his greatest frustration, he says. “Bureaucrats in Washington have come up with a one-size-fits-all worker program that causes hardships everywhere. On a daily basis, three quarters of our Yuma-Bard Valley labor force comes from Mexico. We’re not cold, heartless corporate barons — if we could have a guest worker program under local or regional control, our labor shortages could be resolved efficiently.”

At harvest time, more than 500 laborers (palmeros) can be involved in a date palm site. “We appreciate the work force we have,” says Natural Delights’ Haydock. “To harvest a Medjool takes six or more trips up the trees for hand work. We couldn’t do it without the work force we have.

Taking a page from the avocado industry playbook when it comes to marketing a healthy product, area date producers and packers want to expand their domestic market and further increase exports.

“Of our total production, about 40 percent is exported outside of North America and, of that number, nearly two thirds goes to, or through, Australia. The rest goes to Europe and Asian markets, so our international growth looks strong,” says Mansheim.

Cooper adds, “It’s sometimes difficult, price-wise, to sell California dates to Europe because they can get them cheaper from the Middle East. Our current export markets are Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, but we expect as production volume continues to increase that expansion of exports will be on the table for discussion.”

Looking to emulate success rather than reinventing the wheel, the BVMDGA is seeking to include more of industry players in an effort to build strength through unity.

“We can be much more productive by pooling our money to market the health benefits of our product, replicating the success of the avocado industry, which grew consumption of their product by focusing on health issues,” Mansheim says.

“Our focus is to drive consumers to our product, which will expand consumption,” says Haydock. “We’re investing heavily in advertising online, in print, and in social media.”

While price may be an issue, the ability of dates to act as a power fruit goes without question. Fresh and moist Medjools (other dates come dried) contain 16 vitamins and minerals, with 50 percent more potassium by weight than bananas, and are a good source of dietary fiber. Medjools also contain natural sugars, are cholesterol- and fat-free, and are certified heart healthy by the American Heart Association.  

In fact, when the association came out with an article about sweetener additives, food manufacturers who make protein and snack bars started purchasing Deglet Noor paste as a substitute for processed sugar.

“We’re on an upward growth curve, with a repetitive double-digit increase that should continue as new groves add to our base,” Mansheim predicts.

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