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YUMA, AZ — The Medjool date industry here is thriving thanks in large part to the dominant player, Bard Valley Date Growers Association.

This grower-owned association owns its entire Medjool date supply chain, from the groves to the fruit to the packing facilities, the largest of which is Datepac LLC, located here.  

Datepac will pack and ship an anticipated 20 million pounds of Medjool dates harvested in 2016, which represents over 20 percent growth over the 2015 crop.DateNightErin Hanagan-Muths (seated, left), director of marketing for Bard Valley Date Growers, was joined by 40 guests who attended Date Night on May 11.

Erin Hanagan-Muths, director of marketing, said that Bard Valley Date Growers expects increasing production from young palms in the group’s 8,000-plus acres will continue to reflect 20-30 percent growth year over year for the next five years.

Each acre contains approximately 60 date palms.  

Because dates hold perfectly well in a deep freeze, Datepac ships Medjool dates 12 months a year. The new crop is harvested from the first of September through mid-October each year.  

Hanagan-Muths said that in the produce world, dates are a unique crop requiring extremely hot weather, extremely low humidity and an abundance of water. Coachella and Bard, CA, and Yuma, AZ, are places in North America that offer those ideal conditions.

Coachella growers produce the Deglet Noor date, which is largely dried. Medjool dates are sold in fresh produce departments at retail.  

This year, Datepac is utilizing brand-new computerized grading and packing technology, which has enabled the company to increase productivity dramatically.

Alfredo Sotelo, Datepac’s director of operations, said the Elisam brand equipment places dates in weight-sizing cups that also photograph and sort each date to assure a very high level of quality and consistency.    

Hanagan-Muths said that beyond utilization of the most modern and efficient technology, Bard Valley is equally dedicated to maintaining the top food-safety compliances for food handling and manufacturing.

Datepac has also invested in manufacturing equipment and staffing expertise to bring its date roll production capabilities to a state-of-the-art level as well.  

Datepac develops new flavors of date rolls and plans regular seasonal special promotions to help retailers maximize date sales throughout the year.

State Garden Inc., a leading supplier of organic and conventional tender leaf greens, spinach and celery hearts, based in Chelsea, MA, is offering a new line of organic and conventional lettuce fillets. These new products will be additions to the Olivia’s Organics and Simple Beginnings lines.let1

“There’s a big demand for this product,” Ken Reagan, vice president of sales for State Garden, said in a press release. “Its versatility makes it a useful addition to any meal and it has universal appeal.”  

Lettuce fillets are washed and ready to eat for added convenience, and can be used for chopped salads and Caesars, in sandwiches and are ideal for wraps.let-2

“If you want a great way to cut carbs, just wrap your tuna in a fresh and crunchy Romaine leaf,” Reagan added. “It’s almost a bread substitute.”

Reagan said that because the fillets are produced on the East Coast, “there’s a quicker turn-around time.  We only need 48 hours advance notice. Our customers typically wait five to six days on orders for product produced on the West Coast.”

Another added value is order size. “You can order just one case if you like, and we’ll deliver it in two days,” he said.let3

Olivia’s Organics Romaine Leaves and Simple Beginnings Romaine Leaves and Green Leaf Lettuce Leaves are Non-GMO Verified. They are available now and come in seven-ounce clamshells, six units per case.

In other news from State Garden, the company added a new baby lettuce variety to its five-ounce organic line.

“It’s absolutely beautiful,” Mark DeMichaelis, president and owner of the company, said about the red variety of butter lettuce with striking bands of green. “It looks beautiful on the farm, in the package and on a plate. It has a smooth texture and a taste to match.”

Sometimes called Bibb or Boston Lettuce, Butter lettuce is known for its melt-in-your-mouth leaves. The Butter lettuce plant reaches maturity in about 60 days, but Olivia’s Organics harvests it when it reaches 25-30 days, so it’s even more tender and sweet.

Olivia’s Organics baby Butter lettuce is Non-GMO Verified and is washed, packed and sold fresh daily.  It’s available by the six-, eight- or 12-pack case.

Shipments of U.S.-grown Kanzi brand apples are peaking and over the next few weeks will set new records for retail sales performance. During the past 52 weeks, flavor-intense Kanzi apples have been one of the brightest stars of the apple category, increasing in sales by over 87 percent.Kanzi-pouch-bag

Robb Myers, vice president of sales at CMI, said retail interest in Kanzi is very high. “Kanzi apples are really turning heads at the retail level,” he said in a press release. “Over the past year, apple category dollars are down, yet Kanzi is still driving incredible growth.”

Myers noted that sales of Kanzi apples in the U.S. peak between March 15 and May 1. “This is the time for Kanzi,” said Myers. “Kanzi flavor develops in storage so we release it in late winter just as sales momentum in the apple category is beginning to slow.

“There is nothing like a new item to invigorate category sales,” Myers added.

The season for Washington state-grown Kanzi apples extends through the end of April when imported Kanzi arrive from New Zealand.

Steve Lutz, vice president of marketing for CMI, said national retail scan data results document the strong performance by Kanzi. According to Lutz, Nielsen data reveal that over the past year, Kanzi had the No. 1 dollar growth rate among the 35 best-selling varieties in the United States.

“We’re seeing Kanzi selling successfully in nearly 3,500 stores nationally,” Lutz said. “The next six weeks are prime time for retailers to let their shoppers try this spectacular new apple.”

IGA is partnering with the Health Challenge (formerly the 5/30 Health & Wellness Challenge) for the 10th year running; it will take place March 31-May 11. Though the Health Challenge has had a facelift this year, its essence — encouraging Quebecers to adopt better lifestyle habits in order to improve their mental and physical health — remains the same. Eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables, doing at least 30 minutes of exercise and taking a break — this is what participants are asked to do at least five days a week for the duration of the challenge.

"The continued partnership with the Health Challenge is a natural fit, because it aligns perfectly with our company values and our desire to help consumers eat better," Marie-Noëlle Cano, director of communications and sustainability at Sobeys Québec, said in a press release. "We encourage our customers to join in because it's the perfect way to develop healthy new eating habits and enjoy doing so."

In addition to benefitting from motivational emails and a customized Web platform, participants will be helped along by an IGA Health Passport for the fourth consecutive year. This booklet is packed with inspiring recipes featuring fruits and vegetables, food-related advice and tips, and discount coupons for certain products. The passport will be available at all IGA supermarkets for the duration of the six-week challenge. Everyone who joins the challenge will have a chance to win one of many prizes valued at $20,000 total, including $5,200 worth of groceries at IGA.

The Health Challenge initiative is directly related to The Joy of Eating Better movement, which is manifested through four pillars: cooking differently and more often, discovering local and international flavors, eating healthier and making responsible choices.

Parts of California received a great deal of rain in mid-March, affecting the state’s drought outlook but having little impact on crops.

For much of this year’s rainy season, the predicted El Niño has underperformed. There has been rain off and on since December — certainly much more than the state has received the previous four years — but the El Niño deluge has not materialized.  

Then the calendar turned to March. Rain this month has not hit all sections of the state equally, but it has drenched Northern California and sent several storms through the Central Coast regions, where vegetables and strawberries are in the throes of seasonal volume increases. But for the most part, the rain in those regions has been light to moderate with only minor interruptions in harvest or planting schedules.

As a point of reference, the top half of the state had received above-average rainfall for the first five months of this rain year (October through February), with January exhibiting the best performance at 175 percent of normal. While this was going on, Southern California received average rainfall at best.

The El Niño predictions pointed to a 95 percent certainty that Southern California would get a much greater-than-average rainfall this season.  The El Niño watchers said there would be a 50-50 chance that Northern California’s precipitation would be greater than average.

The forecasters appear to be relatively accurate about the precipitation caused by the El Niño conditions, just not where it has dumped the bulk of its wrath.

Besides the reversal of fortunes in California’s two halves, Florida has received much more rain in the past several months than anyone anticipated from these known atmospheric conditions.

March does appear to be helping the predicted deluge become a reality. By the middle of the month, Northern California had already received more than 200 percent of its normal monthly average, and another storm was sitting off the coast poised to hit around March 20-21.

Other areas also had rain. The Santa Maria area, which has just started to move into its heavy spring-summer production time, received several inches of rain in early March over a 10-day period. Salinas Valley received a strong storm the first weekend of the month and some more rain over the March 12-13 weekend, which was not enough to materially affect the crops or fill the local reservoirs. The two reservoirs that fuel the Salinas River are still sitting well below normal capacity.

All of this is happening while rainfall in Northern California is above average for this time of year. In fact, some reservoirs have been releasing water to the rivers below them to create capacity for future storms. And one large reservoir in Northern California (Lake Oroville), received over 211,000 acre-feet of water in two days, March 13-14.

A spokesman for the California Department of Water Resources was not certain whether that was an all-time record, but he said no single day had as much water collections as either of those days in the past 12 years.

On the whole, it does appear that the California drought (at least for one year) has come to an end, though the impact of the drought is still being felt in many places in the bottom half of the state. And it appears that many of the water-use restrictions for residents will stay in place until at least June, when a more thorough assessment of the water year results can be made.

In the meantime, weather has continued to affect California crops, but it is not so much the rain of mid-March but the weather of the past few months causing the effect.

Craig Smithback of Fresh Kist Produce LLC in Santa Maria, CA, told The Produce News March 16 that there are some small gaps in supply in broccoli, cauliflower and some lettuce items, but those are gaps caused by the warm winter and January rain.

On that particular day, he said the broccoli and cauliflower f.o.b. market price was rising into the low teens and it might be at least a week or two before supply and demand are back in sync.

“We should have a slight bit more supplies next week [March 21-26],” he said, “but I think it is going to be the first week of April before we are back to normal.”

Smithback said while there might continue to be short gaps, the days are getting longer and warmer, so those gaps tend to close rather quickly.

Perched a couple of hundred miles north in the Salinas Valley, Mark McBride of Coastline Family Farms had a very similar report.

“We have not gotten a lot of rain,” he said of the mid-March storms.  “Draw a line from San Francisco to Sacramento. Everything north of that received a lot of rain. Those of us south of that didn’t get very much.”

Consequently, McBride said the Salinas Valley is still on target for an early start, about one week earlier than usual. Broccoli and cauliflower were already being harvested and he estimated that the first lettuce crops would be packed the week of March 28.

In the meantime, desert production was rapidly declining, with many growers closing up shop the week of March 14-20. The lettuce harvest in Huron in the San Joaquin Valley was expected to begin March 21 for many growers. That is typically a four-week deal that bridges the gap between the desert and coastal California production.

With the area transitions and the weather forecasts, McBride agreed that it would probably be early April before the volume of many items returns to a steady pattern of increases.

The industry supply outlook newsletter published by California Giant Berry Farms in Watsonville, CA, also pointed to increased strawberry supplies moving forward.

The newsletter noted that Oxnard, Santa Maria and Watsonville had received some significant rain during the first two weeks of March, but only enough to temporarily halt production. In the longer-range forecast, supplies are increasing and should be quite plentiful in April.