With no rain to speak of, the California date industry is close to wrapping up what can only be described as a near-perfect growing season. Industry leaders are confident in the quality and storability of this season’s crop.
“Rain before harvest can cause quality issues, dates just don’t respond well to moisture so it’s been nice to get through the season without rain and we’re confident that we’ll have exceptional quality this year,” said DJ Ryan, sales and operations manager for SunDate USA.
“We continue to see double digit growth in medjool dates on both conventional and organic,” continued Ryan. “At Sun Date, we’ve been transitioning to organics in our date gardens.”
Currently the company is shipping approximately 65 percent organic product and that number should increase to about 80 percent as gardens in transitions become certified and new organic plantings mature. A date garden reaches full maturity 9-10 years after planting.
“The organic market needs to develop over time so there’s demand for that volume,” added Ryan, “so we’re careful in how we introduce new organic volume.”
Shippers are finding that both domestic and overseas markets are warming to organic dates and club stores in particular are transitioning to more organic product.
The California date industry is primarily composed of medjool and deglet dates with no significant varieties beyond those two. “It’s interesting,” said Ryan, “the history of the medjool date goes back 25 years or so, when the Deglet pitted was the primary date in production. In the 80’s we started heavier Medjool plantings, and by the 90’s the variety began to have legs. It really started to grow and year over year it’s increased ever since.”
Overall there’s an increased awareness and thus increased consumer demand for Medjool dates. Globally, demand increases every year.
“We of course compete with fruit from across the world but have found there’s value to our U.S. fruit and if we’re able to promote it properly and get it in front of customers there’s still a preference for U.S. product.” This makes sense particularly from a food-safety standpoint, where retailers need traceability and the assurance of certain food-safety standards that U.S. grower/shipper/marketers such a Sun Date are able to deliver on.
“We as marketers used to promote the traditional Western holidays: Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Easter and so on. We had always assumed that these holidays were the biggest domestic sales driver,” explained Ryan.
In fact, Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, prayer, reflection and community is the peak sales period for dates. For many years Ramadan has fallen close to the Western holidays and recently, as it’s pulled away from this time of year, shippers are seeing for the first time the degree to which the holiday is driving sales.
In 2020 Ramadan will fall between April 23 and May 23. “We sell more product during this holiday than at any other time, it’s really our peak selling period,” said Ryan, who recommends Medjool dates in eight-ounce, 12-ounce or one-pound clamshells, for best delivery to end consumers. “They’re really our key sizes,” he said. “Traditionally, bulk Medjools ship in five-kilo units overseas and to domestic wholesalers but as food-safety has become a bigger issue that’s beginning to change.”
With regard to in-store merchandising, marketers strongly suggest placing Medjool dates in the produce section, rather than the nut aisle, making it easier for consumers to locate them.
“It’s like anything that’s probably not a destination item,” said Ryan. “People kind of have to stumble across them. We highly recommend end-cap displays or some tie-in to other holidays items in the produce section.”
One of the key features of dates is their high sugar content with a fairly neutral flavor profile. As consumers continue to move away from processed sugars, corn syrup and the like, Medjool dates are becoming a sought after alternative.
“That’s caused an awareness of dates as a healthy option replacing traditional sweeteners,” said Ryan. “So people are beginning to use dates more in a variety of applications and we’re seeing an increase in repeat business on medjools because of that.”
Gone are the days of wrapping up date packing and shipping after the Easter holiday, as dates have reached continuous 12-month demand by consumers.
Dates are special in that shippers can freeze them and once they’re room temperature again, the eating experience is no different from the day they were picked. Add to that their six-month shelf life at room temperature and this is good news for both growers and retailers looking to engage an increasingly date-seeking consumer base.