International cooperation advances drip irrigation for western date grower

International cooperation advances drip irrigation for western date grower

In a prime example of international cooperation in agriculture, Israeli date growers Moshe and Smadar Kirat are sharing their successful date-growing techniques with California date palm grower David Kohl of La Quinta Date Farm in Thermal. Top on the list of changes is the conversion of Kohl's flood- and drip-irrigated operation to 100 percent surface drip.

Date fruit growers David Kohl of Thermal, Calif. and Moshe Kirat of Moshi Hatzeva, Israel farm nearly 7,000 miles apart. Yet an international exchange of ideas between the producers is leading to improved irrigation strategies to conserve water while increasing higher yields and fruit quality.

In late February, Kohl, plus Moshe and his wife Smadar, joined together at the Kohl family’s La Quinta Date Farm in Thermal, Calif. (Riverside County) to discuss and implement new irrigation strategies recommended by the Israeli producers.

La Quinta Date Farm is a 730-acre organic date operation producing the Medjool, Deglet Noor, and Zahidi varieties. The Kohl family – David and his father Allen - started the operation in 2002 and plan to expand the operation to 1,000 acres by 2017.

Kirat has farmed in Israel’s Aravah Valley since 1966. The Israeli grower added dates to the crop mix in 1990. Other crops include vegetables, mangos, and flowers.

Kohl is open to new ideas in date production, including those from his new Israeli friends.

“I don’t have any ingrained beliefs on how to farm dates,” Kohl says. “We want to do it the most efficient way possible. We are very open minded.”

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The Kohl’s this year hired Kirat as a consultant to help them improve date production on the La Quinta farm, including better water utilization per acre. Kohl believes maximum water efficiency is critical to the future of the operation and profitability.

The farm’s new irrigation plan will shift to 100-percent surface drip, practiced and advocated by the Kirat family. La Quinta farm is currently a 50-50 split with newer acres in drip and the older trees under flood irrigation.

Kohl says, “Drip irrigation is a much more efficient way to water date trees.”

Date palm growing conditions are almost identical in Israel and the California-Arizona area. Both regions feature arid climates with about three inches of rainfall annually and extreme hot summer temperatures.

Successful 7,000 mile trip

The international relationship between Kohl and Kirat sprouted two years ago when Kohl traveled to Israel to learn more about the country’s successful date industry. Kohl met Kirat on his date farm and soaked up Kirat’s successful production practices like a sponge. 

“I witnessed their productivity and efficiency with every ounce of labor and every drop of water,” Kohl says. “It’s a smart move to implement some of their practices on our California date farm.”

In Israel, water is a precious, limited, and expensive resource. For many Israeli date growers, it costs about $140 per year to water a single date palm tree. Yet irrigation strategies implemented by Kirat have reduced the cost by about 30 percent. 

Water is also front and center for California producers, especially given the state’s current extreme drought.

Kohl’s shift to 100-percent drip this year will include purchasing supplies from U.S. and Israeli companies, including regular and spaghetti tubing, regulators, drippers, soil sensors including tensiometers, and other components.

“Everything will be surface drip,” Kohl said with a smile.

The system will use a computer and the Internet to harness a wireless data system to manage every facet of the irrigation system.

“You can control the irrigation system from the house or the car,” Kirat says. “It will provide the irrigation flow data for every single tree. If there is a problem anywhere in the irrigation system, an immediate electronic notification will be sent.”

Most commercially-produced dates in the U.S. are grown in three contiguous counties in Southern California (Riverside and Imperial counties) and southwestern Arizona (Yuma County). Acreage totals about 12,000 combined acres. 

Israel and the U.S. are the 14th and 17th largest date producers in the world, respectively. Egypt is the great kahuna of date farming. Most U.S.-grown dates are the Medjool variety.

Perhaps the biggest problem for the global date industry is the lack of consumer awareness about dates. Less than 10 percent of people have even heard of dates; a fruit packed with healthy antioxidants.

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“Dates are a super food,” Kohl says.

While Kirat’s irrigation expertise will advance water savings on the La Quinta operation, his expertise in date production extends well beyond water issues. For example, Kirat has developed better ways to utilize compost to fertilize trees.

Kirat is also a strong advocate of mechanization in date production; not only to increase production efficiencies but for a safer working environment for field workers.

For decades, field workers called ‘palmeros’ have climbed trees and stood on fronds high above the ground to perform many necessary but dangerous tasks.

Kirat recommended modifications to mechanized date-picking platform equipment which includes a gate (door) so workers can move around the tree in a complete circle to prune, de-thorn, pollinate, bag fruit, and other important tasks. The Israeli government’s Ministry of Agriculture supported Kirat’s idea and equipment manufacturers added the improvement to equipment.

Kohl intends to purchase three of the date-picking platform machines at a cost per unit of more than $100,000-plus.

The Israeli date grower also developed a large knife which when attached to the backside of a backhoe can mechanically slice tree shoots from palm trees to plant to generate new trees. The old hand-machete cutting method was dangerous for workers and resulted in reduced shoot survival compared to Kirat’s new method.

Kohl explained, “I’ve learned from Moshe that there is a smarter way to grow dates. A grower can achieve higher quality fruit and yield which means farming more efficiently and productively.”

Speaking of date yields, Kirat says Israeli date producers produce about 260 pounds of fruit per tree. Kohl’s yields are about 160 pounds on the oldest trees. Kohl plans to change that with Kirat’s input.

“I want to increase productivity, conserve natural resources, improve the trees and the operation, and be the best we can be,” the California grower said.

“It’s a win-win,” Kohl concluded.

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