In the heart of the Coachella Valley desert, veteran Israeli date grower Moshe Kirat is hoping to revolutionize the fruit’s production in California, beginning with one private farm.
Israel’s Hadiklaim Date Growers’ Cooperative commissioned Kirat about a year ago to bring his date growth expertise to the La Quinta Date Farm, owned by farmer David Kohl and his family, in the town of Thermal in Southern California. The nearly 600-hectare (1,483 acre) farm, like many date orchards in the United States, still largely relied on obsolete methods for date growth sought to adopt many of the advanced technologies employed in Israel, according to Kirat.
The Kohl family date farm has been operating since 2002, supplying its produce predominantly to American Muslims.
The La Quinta Date Farm produces dates from four varieties – Medjool, Noor, Barhi and Zahidi.
Kirat, 66, was the head grower at Moshav Hatzeva in the Arava Desert from 1994 through 2012. Considered an expert on the Medjool and Noor date types, he has been responsible for growing areas of between 20 and 50 hectares in Israel.
Across the United States, there are 213 farms with 4,444 hectares of date orchards, the vast majority of which are located in California, according to the 2012 US Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture. In 2012, California produced 31,100 tons of dates on 3,399 hectares of land, the California Agricultural Statistics Review for 2013-2014 recorded. These dates are of a wide range of varieties, beyond the four produced at La Quinta, Kirat said.
Israel’s 2012 date orchards encompassed about 4,500 hectares of land, also generating about 31,000 tons of dates that year – 21,000 tons of these alone, of the Medjool variety.
While the figures may look similar, or even favorable to California, Kirat stressed that a closer look is necessary and that the opposite is actually true.
The bulk of Israeli dates are Medjools, while the Californian dates are from a wide spectrum, he said. California planted about 52-54 trees per acre (128-133 trees per hectare), while Israel only planted about 45 trees per acre (111 trees per hectare), he said. The Californian yield is about 70 kilograms of dates per tree, and the Israeli yield is around 120 kilograms per tree, he added.
Upon his arrival to the Coachella Valley, Kirat was immediately struck by the primitive – and very expensive – forms of irrigation employed by the farm’s roughly 25 employees. Only about 3-4 percent of the watering occurred through drip irrigation, with the rest relying on flooding, he explained.
“Many of the Americans visiting Israel have seen these techniques, but they haven’t done anything,” Kirat told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. “I think it’s because their water is very cheap and in Israel it’s very expensive.”
Since his arrival, Kirat said he has helped transfer nearly the entire orchard to drip irrigation, and is in the process of computerizing the system for remote access. Thus far, integrating the infrastructure has cut water usage by 43% at the La Quinta Date Farm, he said.
In addition to revamping the farm’s irrigation system, Kirat brought in six cranes with hydraulic platforms for more efficient and cost effective date harvesting.
Prior to his arrival, Kirat said that employees gathered dates aboard a U-shaped platform that left one side of the tree completely open and untouched.
In the hydraulic platform, which features a closed-door compartment for safety, the workers are able to walk around the tree and boost their productivity by 20%, he said.
Kirat estimated that the implementation of his techniques at La Quinta, has saved the farm nearly $60 per tree. With approximately 40,000 trees, this amounts to about $2.4 million in savings.
The current date yield at the farm is around 400 tons of dates per year, but this number will likely increase by an additional 100 tons per year.
Kirat said he expects to remain as an adviser there for another two or three years.
“I need to teach people all the techniques, from shoots to mature trees,” he added.
He said he also intends to improve the shoot thinning methods employed by the workers at the orchard. At this point, they use knives that can only take out between four and five shoots per person daily, he explained. Aiming to push that number to 200 shoots per day, Kirat said he has built a hydraulic knife for the back of a tractor that can accomplish this feat.
“All of these thing take years to teach people,” he said. “It will take time, but these techniques are good for everything, not just for dates.”
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