The date palm is a dioecious grass species, meaning plants are either male or female, with only the female plants producing fruit. They grow to around 20m in height and may live for up to 80 years. Up to 25 leaves, or fronds, can be produced every four years, and each may be functional for up to four years.
Global date production is almost exclusively a northern hemisphere industry, centered on North Africa and the Arab States. However, during the last century date production was introduced to some new world locations, including the United States of America, South Africa and Australia. The five largest producers of dates are Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iraq; accounting for about 70% of total global production. Much of this production is for local consumption, however Iran, Pakistan, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Algeria are the major export producing countries by volume. The USA and Israel are smaller producers but achieve the highest export unit value.
Each year, Australia imports 5,000–7,000 tonnes of dates. Given date palms have been successfully growing across a range of sites in Australia for over 100 years, there would appear to be potential for establishing a commercial date industry in Australia. The date palm should be managed carefully, as it has the potential to become a weed in a few areas.
The Australian date industry is based on a small number of commercial operators with approximately 150 hectares of date palm (Phoenix dactylifera (Areceacea)) under production. Historically there has been several challenges to industry growth in Australia including the lack of plant material, time taken for palms to mature for production, limited knowledge of product diversity, limited knowledge of date uses by consumers, and a lack of knowledge about which varieties are best suited to particular locations. There is now a company that has an established nursery with knowledge around these industry deficits. However, the date palm, which can thrive in arid environments, may offer an economic option for farmers in industries affected by changing climate and poor water quality.
Facts and figures
- Date palms (Phoenix dactylifera (Areceacea)) are adapted to arid zones
- Global date production is almost exclusively a northern hemisphere industry, centred on North Africa and the Arab States
- Approximately 93% of dates harvested are consumed within the country of origin
- Each year, Australia imports 5,000–7,000 tonnes of dates, with about three quarters of these imports coming from Iran
- There are three stages of fruit maturity, each with a different use and market potential. There are the low value dried dates used in cooking (and received in Australia as bulk imports), soft eating dates and crisp eating dates
- The Australian date industry has been slow to develop, with approximately 150 hectares of date plantation in production
- Date palms have a weed potential in inland areas of Australia that have unmanaged water supplies
- Limited market information, uninformed local consumers, restricted access to plant material and the cost of production relative to competitors are the major challenges to industry growth in Australia
Globally, the date palm is cultivated in over 40 countries with approximately 800,000 hectares under production, annually producing some seven million metric tonnes of fruit. Date palms are widespread in North Africa, the Middle East and southern Asia.
In Australia, the market for date fruit is essentially based on imported fruit as the Australian date industry is still new. Australian imports have shown significant growth from 4,961 tonnes in 2003–04 to 7,222 tonnes in 2006–07 but fell back to 5049 tonnes in 2007–08. It is not clear whether this decline in 2007–08 was due to a supply problem or a demand issue.
There is limited data available for date production in Australia but there are approximately 150 hectares of date plantation of known varieties at fruit bearing age. Australian commercial producers were supplying small quantities of dates to health food stores, small independent supermarkets, markets, direct from the farm gate and via their websites. As production areas increase, it is hoped a regular supply of dates can be established for sale in major supermarkets.