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Coachella Valley expected to see significant growth in production of dates over the next few years

by Rand Green | September 16, 2011
California dates in a Coachella Valley packinghouse. (Photo by Pam Bieri, courtesy California Date Administrative Committee)

With substantial new acreage of date palms in California’s Coachella Valley yet to come into production, the valley is poised for a significant growth in volume over the next several years.

According to Lorrie Cooper, manager of the California Date Administrative Committee, a federal marketing order encompassing date growers in Riverside County, “we are at 6,400 bearing acres” for the season, with total planted acres around 9,300 and more being planted.

Last year’s production for the Coachella Valley was just over 38 million pounds. “This year, we are expecting about 45 million,” Ms. Cooper said. “Next year, I estimate we will hit 47 million to 50 million pounds,” and the growth will continue for several more years.

It can take as long as eight years for a date palm to come into full production.

The predominant date varieties grown in the Coachella Valley are Deglet Noor and Medjool. Plantings of both have been increasing, but Medjools have accounted for most of the growth. Deglet Noors continue to be the largest-volume variety, but since about half of that crop goes into the ingredient market, whereas Medjools are all shipped fresh, Medjools outnumber Deglet Noors in the fresh market, according to Ms. Cooper.

During the last few years, date volume in California has been down from historic volumes because of tree removal. “We went through a spurt of urban growth” in which date farmers relocated their acreage from the upper part of the Coachella Valley which was being developed and relocated to cheaper land “down toward the Salton Sea,” Ms. Cooper said.

At the same time, many whole trees were harvested for landscaping during the building boom and replaced with new plantings. That trend discontinued when the real estate market hit a slump about three years ago.

Growers “have been talking for the last couple of years that we are going to see a big influx of production coming on board,” and that is now starting to happen, she said.

Lorrie Cooper

Demand for dates has been on the rise, and much of that is attributed to a growing consumer awareness of the health benefits associated with including dates in the diet.

The Medjool and Deglet Noor varieties of fresh California dates have recently been certified as heart-healthy by the American Heart Association and are now authorized to use the AHA’s Heart Check mark, meaning that they meet the AHA’s criteria for low levels of saturated fat and cholesterol, according to the web site of the California Date Administrative Committee.

Handlers of California dates are now authorized to use the Heart Check mark on their packaging, said Lorrie Cooper, manager of the California Date Administrative Committee. It can also be used in the committee’s brochures and ads “and on our web site and anything that we want to promote.”

The committee is putting much of its promotional efforts into the message regarding all of the good news for dates on the nutritional and health benefits front.

“We are doing some work with the American Dietetic Association,” Ms. Cooper said. “We will be attending their conference in September in San Diego. We are doing some sponsorships with them.”