Date growers celebrate hearty 2012 harvest

Agriculturalists are celebrating the increasing global success of one of Israel’s most fruitful trees; the date tree.

palestinian date farmer 311 REUTERS (photo credit: REUTERS)
palestinian date farmer 311 REUTERS
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As Jews around the world prepare to celebrate Tu Bishvat, agriculturalists around Israel are celebrating the increasing global success of one of Israel’s most fruitful trees.
While not indigenous to Israel, the date tree has become an ever-increasing source of income for growers here. Israeli dates may still only make up a very small fraction of the global harvest, but in the special Medjool variety, Israelis excel by supplying 50 percent of the world’s demand, explained Buki Glasner, agricultural manager of Hadiklaim, a cooperative for date growers all over the country.
Dates generally grow in Israel along the rift valley from Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) to the Dead Sea and then to the Red Sea, with harvest time beginning in August in the Dead Sea area and concluding at the onset of November in the Jordan Valley, Glasner said. There are a total of about 4,500 hectares (11,120 acres) worth of date palm trees, generating in 2012 about 31,000 tons of dates and 21,000 specifically of the Medjool variety.
Of the total, about 50% were exported, with about 10,000 to 11,000 of the Medjools in particular going abroad, Glasner explained.
“Israel dominates the Medjool market,” he said.
Of the 31,000 tons of dates generated during last year’s harvest, farmers in the Hadiklaim cooperative account for about 20,000 tons, of which they exported around 8,500 tons, according to Glasner.
All in all, date tree cultivators are very pleased with their 2012 export figures, as the numbers represent a 20% jump from those of the previous year, according to Glasner.
This achievement, he explained, is in large part due to the global trend of focusing on health and nutrition. Dates provide key elements necessary to a healthy lifestyle, including high nutritional fiber and potassium levels, while remaining sweet and dry without additives. New research that will soon be released by a laboratory at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology indicates that consumption of 100 grams of dates daily decreases triglycerides and removes layers of cholesterol from the veins, Glasner added.
Overall, date production worldwide is 8 million tons annually, but the brunt of those dates are consumed in their countries of origin: Pakistan, Tunisia, Iran, Egypt and other countries in the Middle East-North African region. As far as exports go, the largest quantity – 350,000 tons annually – moves from Pakistan to India, while about 100,000 tons go from Iran and Tunisia to Europe, Glasner said.
Israel’s Medjool dates originally come from Morocco through California, while other varieties hail from Egypt and Iraq, Glasner explained. Because it takes 10 years to grow the tree and four to five generations to breed ideal new tree types, most of the dates produced around the world still come from existing, traditional varieties.
“We still have the test of old times,” Glasner said.
Of Israel’s small share of the global date market, about 50% of those exported from here end up in Europe – predominantly in England, France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Holland, according to Glasner.
However, Israel also finds a large market in North America, as well as increasing demands in the Far East, South America and Australia.
Approximately 90% of the water feeding Israel’s dates is either treated wastewater or groundwater with high salinity, meaning that growers are able to minimize the amount of potable water they use for their trees, Glasner said.
Within the Hadiklaim cooperative, which operates about 12 packaging houses, workers then strip the dates of any microbes or residue.
“A date is a product ready to eat,” Glasner stressed, “a product you can eat directly without any hesitation.”