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California date season under way with increased volume

California date shippers have reported that this year’s timing is back to normal after last year’s early start, and they are expecting a significant bump in volume.

In fact, several shippers indicated that there could be as much as 20 percent more volume this year as the result of increased production from previously planted date palm trees. Most growers started picking in early September and were expecting to be in full swing by the middle of the month. Last year, warmer-than-usual weather throughout spring and summer brought the crop on early with picking beginning about two weeks earlier in mid- to late August. The actual timing of the crop is relatively inconsequential as dates are marketed from cold and freezer storage throughout the year. It usually takes about six weeks for the dates to be picked and stored. During that first six weeks, fresh dates are picked and sold but it is very difficult for a retail buyer, let alone a consumer, to know the difference.

Ben Antongiovanni of Atlas Produce & Distribution Inc. in Bakersfield, CA, said the goal is to have a seamless transition between one year’s storage crop and next year’s fresh crop, which then morphs into a storage crop. “We try to time our sales at the end of one year to run out just as the new crop is beginning to ship,” he said, noting that a slight overlap or gap is not a big concern.

At this time of year, date sales are steady but not off the charts. In early October, shippers and retailers begin to gear up for the date promotions that continue throughout the fall holiday season. And then both promotions and sales peak again in spring and early summer to coincide with spring holidays and Ramadan, which is a holy month of sunrise to sunset fasting for the Muslim community. Dates are an important food during this time period all over the world. Not only is it generally believed that Mohammad ate dates to end his fast, but dates are an excellent source of fiber, sugar, magnesium, potassium and carbohydrates. As such they are considered an excellent way for the body to maintain good health during the fasting period. In 2017, Ramadan will begin on May 27 and end on June 25.

Antongiovanni said Israel is the major competitor as far as date supplies are concerned, but the California-sourced date is sought after by many buyers who supply Muslim communities. During the Ramadan period, Antongiovanni said export sales peak with demand being very high.

The increase in volume this year is the result of two main factors: increased plantings and lack of a residential market for date palms. Steven Gilfenbain, who has been growing dates for a decade and marketing them under Double Date Packing in Coachella, CA, for the past year, said date palms had a great run as part of housing developments about a decade ago. There were many date orchards planted with the expectation that many of the trees would be snapped up by developers over the next decade. When the housing market slumped around 2008, so did the sale of those trees. While sales are starting to come back, many of those trees are now being harvested for their fruit instead of their decorative value.

But the increased volume has coincided with an increase in interest in the date by foodies, chefs, food magazines and shows, and consumers

Consumer demand continues to rise. “In fact, it is surprising to us. We continue to wait for the wave to crest but it hasn’t happened,” said D.J. Ryan of SunDate in Coachella, CA. And Ryan said the future looks bright as penetration in American households is still very low.

Hope Barbee, sales director for Double Date Packing in Coachella, said it was precisely that low penetration that attracted her to the commodity. “I was handling fresh berries in Portland, OR, when a date shipper enticed me down here,” she said. “When I got here household penetration was 11 percent. We couldn’t go anywhere but up. Now its 28 percent and we still have huge room for growth.”

She said dates have a great nutritional story as they are high in many positive nutrients. And she said they are also a great natural sweetener for use instead of corn syrup for cooking and baking.

As a point of fact, Barbee said she loves desert living. “It’s summer every day.”

Lorrie Cooper, who is the manager of the California Date Commission, said it is the nutrition aspect that drives her industry-wide group. “The Date Commission provides marketing and promotion, field and nutrition research on behalf of Riverside County date producers and handlers,” she said, adding that the industry has put its focus into nutritional research with a major university. “Phase I is currently under way and a report is expected by year end 2016 into the first quarter of 2017.”

The commission has not engaged in a great deal of promotional activity but it was a sponsor of a professional tennis tournament in the California desert this year, and was proud of the results. “Any marketing and promotion activities are locally based within the Coachella Valley. As an example, this past March 2016, the BNP Paribas Open was held at the Indian Wells Tennis Gardens,” Cooper said. “The date industry provided 10,000 individual containers to professional tennis players during the two weeks of the tournament. Novak Djokovic, who eats dates on court during tournaments, was caught on camera eating dates from the California Date container during the finals at the BNP Paribas Open. The industry was very pleased the professional players had enjoyed our California dates.”

In late August Ryan said all was looking very good for this year’s crop as long as the rains stay away for a few more weeks. Dates, he said, need plenty of sun and plenty of water, but the water has to come from irrigation and not the skies. The desert areas of California and Arizona, where the dates are grown, have been known to have monsoonal type rains in late August and September. In fact that has occurred at least once in each of the past few years. “So far so good,” said Ryan. “Knock on any available wood but we haven’t had any rain this year.”

If the rains hold off until the middle of October, the date industry will be very happy.