Dates

24.05.17

Dates are one of the world’s oldest cultivated fruits. They are widespread throughout North Africa and the Middle East and come in a variety of fruit styles that appeal to a wide range of tastes. Dates are highly prized as a whole-food and food ingredient.

Overview

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

Production status

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.

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Map of current and potential growing regions

Uses

Dates are a well-packaged combination of nutrition, fibre and energy, providing a wide range of essential nutrients, including dietary potassium. They are generally eaten as a snack food and used as an ingredient in cooking, condiments and confectionery.

Dates are an important ingredient in North African and Arabic cuisine and in some communities have religious significance.

Production Requirements

Growing regions

Dates are grown commercially in two regions, the South Australian Riverland and near Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. Historically, dates have been grown at Eulo in Queensland and Gascoyne Junction in Western Australia, but currently there is no commercial production.

A number of growers along the Murray River in South Australia and Victoria are trialling date plantations. This region is considered a very suitable area for the development of date palms because of its suitable climate, existing infrastructure from horticultural enterprises and proximity to markets.

Soil type

The ideal soils for date palms include free draining sands or sandy loams with low salt levels and good moisture holding capacity, although date palms are tolerant of a wide variety of soil types and conditions. Dates, along with pistachios, are much more tolerant of soil salinity than most other horticultural plants and withstand water logged conditions better than most plants.

Climate

In general, the geographic distribution of commercial date production is limited to areas which can be described as semi-arid or arid and where there is an abundant supply of water. Date palms need a long, hot growing season for the fruit to mature; low humidity and the absence of summer rain minimise losses to fruit rot. The date palm is considered drought resistant, however, for maximum yields quality irrigation is required to supplement rainfall.

Varieties

The date palm, P.dactylifera, belongs to the Areceacea family and is in the same genus as other ornamental palms such as the Canary Island palm (P.canariensis) and the sugar palm (P.sylvestris).

There are three basic market segments that date varieties are pitched at:

  • Fresh (Khalaal) which are crisp and crunchy with around 50% moisture content. They are a perishable fruit and only a small number of varieties are suitable for this market, the most famous being Barhee.
  • Ripe (Rutab) with approximately 30-35% moisture content. Most commonly traded category in the market place, long shelf life extended under refrigeration.
  • Cured (Tamar) with only 10-15% moisture, hard, dry dates with high sugar content and long storage life.

More than forty recognised varieties of date palm are currently being evaluated for Australian conditions and the following varieties are currently in commercial production:

  • Medjool is a soft, early-season variety, which has excellent flavour
  • Barhee is a soft (when mature) late-season variety, which is in demand for exporting to Arabian countries in the early khalaal stage when it is hard and crunchy
  • Khadrawy is an early-ripening soft date with high moisture content, less sugar and a mild flavour
  • Halawi is a soft medium-sized date with a pale colour and subtle flavour
  • Bou Strami is a soft small black date with a fruity flavour
  • Bou Fergus is a soft medium-sized date with a mild flavour
  • Bou Skry is a soft small brown/green date with a very distinct flavour
  • Thory is a dry, beige, firm-textured date with a nutty flavour
  • Zahidi is a dry, yellow date with a chewy texture
  • Fard male (need to include the pollen sources/males)
  • Jarvis male

Some other varieties are currently being evaluated for commercial performance in Australia:

  • Ajwah
  • Anbarah
  • Ashal Al Hassa
  • Dayri
  • Fard female
  • Iraqi female
  • Khalas
  • Khiyara
  • Lulu
  • Nabut Saif
  • Nagal
  • Nemeishi
  • Sagaii
  • ShiShi
  • Sultana
  • Thoory
  • Zambli

Notably, the Khalas variety, which is the most popular date in the Persian Gulf countries, has some characteristics that may make it another potential variety for Australian conditions.

More extensive lists and information is available from suppliers.

Planting and crop management

Dates are clonally propagated from offsets or by tissue culture. The number of offsets produced by a palm diminishes with age, and the offsets are physically difficult to collect. Plants from tissue culture take years to establish and to grow to a stage suitable for planting. Established clonal material is available from one commercial supplier in Australia.  Date palms can be propagated from seed but seedlings are not true to type and may be male plants which don’t produce fruit.

Date palm plants are either male or female, with only the female plants producing fruit but requiring male plants for pollination. Commercial date palm plantations are usually planted on a nine-metre square pattern (i.e. 123 palms/ha) with one male palm per 30 females. However, growers are moving to a 10-metre square pattern (i.e. 100 palms/ha) to allow more sunlight between trees, which minimises humidity levels and increases yield quality. Flowering takes place around July to September and because date palms are dioecious, male pollen is required to be harvested and applied manually in a timely manner to the female flowers. Reliance on wind pollination generally results in poor yields, therefore in commercial production female flowers are hand pollinated (one male palm can pollinate approximately 25–30 female palms). Traditionally female plants are pollinated using P.dactylifera, however growers are trialling pollination with the sugar palm (P.sylvestris).

The period of time to first fruit production also depends on the variety and size of date palm at establishment. Generally speaking, first fruit might be expected between 4-12 years, depending on whether an offshoot (sometimes a 100kg plant) or a small seedling developed from tissue culture, was planted.

Yield is highly variable and dependent on the variety and fruit maturity stage. Weight is almost irrelevant as a yield indicator, as fresh dates (khalaal) are heavy with moisture while ripe dates (rutab) have lost some of that moisture. Therefore, harvest may range from between 60–100kg of dates per palm.

Although the date palm is considered drought resistant, to achieve maximum yields and quality, date palms require 15-25ML/ha of water per year, from rainfall and/or irrigation. Water application rates are highly variable and dependent on the level of evapotranspiration in each growing region. Irrigation water is generally supplied by low level sprinklers or trickle irrigation.

Palms need to be fertilized, irrigated, old fronds removed and new fronds de-thorned to enable access to flowers and fruits. Regular treatments need to be applied in areas where scale occurs. Mature date orchards are highly labour intensive in terms of tree and fruit management. Hand pollination of female flowers, fruit thinning, fitting covers to protect from birds, tying bunches to fronds, and on-farm processing, all increase labour input. The fruit do not generally mature once picked so dates have a long harvest season as bunches progressively shed mature fruit. Some varieties are harvested at a mature crisp stage that could be more attractive if labour costs are prohibitive.

Date palms are harvested between January and April, depending on location, variety and desired maturity. Knowledge of the correct time for harvesting may only be obtained by experience with each variety.

The stages of fruit maturity are as follows:

  • khalaal: the fruit changes from green to yellow or red; the flesh is crisp and sweet, but not all varieties are edible at this stage
  • rutab: the fruit may have further changed colour to brown and may be fully soft at this stage
  • tamar: the fruit is fully mature, has low moisture content and will store for a long time.

Weeds, pests and diseases

After planting, seedlings should be kept free from weeds that compete for water, nutrients and light. Once established, weed control within the plantation contributes to overall good farm management and reduces fire risk.

Date palms grown in hot dry areas are largely free from pest and disease. However, Parlatoria scale (Parlatoria blanchardii) can attack date palms resulting in reduced vigour and yields, leading to a downgrading of fruit quality. The Department of Agriculture and Food in Western Australia advises that its own plantings have been observed with slight damage by ants, plant-sucking bugs and dried fruit (nitidulid) beetles. Root knot nematodes are another pest of date trees, and may cause damage to the roots.

False smut disease has been observed on date palm leaves but it is not considered to have a major impact on fruit production.

The fruit is susceptible to severe damage from birds but this may be controlled by applying covers to the bunches or bird netting over the trees.

Infrastructure Requirements

The infrastructure on most established horticultural enterprises will suit date production. This includes an irrigation system, harvest aids as well as cleaning, sorting, packing and refrigeration infrastructure.

In the early years of establishment, many operational tasks can be undertaken without ladders or harvest aids. However, as trees move into full commercial production, ladders or elevated platforms become necessary for palm management. Some large overseas producers use a platform on a hydraulic lift that surrounds the date palm enabling up to eight people to harvest fruit at any one time.

Harvesting & Processing

The different stages of fruit maturity require different approaches to harvest. Dates harvested at the khalaal stage are picked in entire bunches (in a similar way to bananas). Because dates ripen unevenly, fruit at the rutab stage are picked individually when they ripen on the bunch over an extended period of time. To manage this, growers usually place a bag over each bunch so as the dates ripen they fall into the bag, which is emptied every two days.

A date is a whole food, which can be picked off a tree and eaten, but for commercial processing there are a few requirements:

  • washing to remove grit and dust
  • dehydrating to enable a long shelf life
  • sorting for quality (with the capacity to value-add second grade fruit)
  • packing
  • refrigeration
  • distribution.

Without a processing sector in Australia, these functions occur on farm.

Markets & Marketing

Market information for dates is limited and is listed as a challenge to industry growth in Australia.

There are two Australian producers selling small amounts of dates to health food stores, small independent supermarkets, markets, direct from the farm gate and via their websites but demand exceeds supply.

Risks & Regulations

Risks/challenges

Suitable varieties of date palms for Australian conditions are still being evaluated, so varietal selection is a challenge for new entrants into the industry. Varieties that grow in one region can easily fail in another, even when conditions are considered appropriate. For example, some varieties are rain sensitive, meaning an unexpected shower during summer can ruin a whole year’s fruit.

The cost of production for Australian grown dates is expected to be considerably higher than most competing product from overseas, which is produced in countries with a low-cost workforce, lower business input costs, cheaper fuel and shorter transport distances to market.

For Australia’s date industry to grow, producers are working to establish a high-grade product for export to an affluent customer base. The focus is for crisp eating dates with limited shelf life, and a counter cyclical production to the Northern hemisphere. However, there is a lack of reliable market information at this stage to determine the potential size and opportunity of this market.

Regulatory considerations

In some parts of inland Australia the date palm has the potential to become a weed. However, its slow growth and time to reproductive production mean that if well managed, the risk is minute. It is suggested that potential new entrants discuss plantation management with their state Department of Primary Industries.

Date palms have restrictions on their interstate movement. The Northern Territory and South Australia have restricted movement of date palms due to the potential transfer of Parlatoria blanchardii scale. It is highly recommended that state to state transfer of material is discussed with the appropriate state Department of Primary Industries to determine quarantine and transfer regulations and protocols.

Industry Bodies

There is currently no industry body for the date industry in Australia.

Image Gallery

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Potted date palms

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Dates on date palm

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Fresh dates

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Date plantation

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Dates ripening protected by netting and example of ripe date