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Dates: ‘feet in water, head in Fire’

California’s Coachella Valley, with high temperatures and a steady water supplier, is the perfect situation for the growing of dates.

Date palms are said to thrive with their feet in water and heads in the sun because they need plenty of ground water to drink, but high heat and arid weather to produce fruit. As such, date palms produce fruit only in the world’s hot, arid climates. The Middle East has long been known for its date production, as are several other areas where those conditions prevail.DD-Ranch

Date trees pre-date the history books so there is no clear path to the time or place where they first appeared. On its website, the California Date Commission claims that “the date palm has existed from prehistoric times. Fossilized remains estimated to be millions of years old have been found in Asia. Dates may very well be man’s oldest cultivated fruit, believed to have been cultivated as early as 8,000 years ago.”

Though dates are indigenous to the Middle East, California packers and shippers report that buyers from that region do prefer California dates. “We’ve been told they like our quality and they trust our food safety programs better than the ones in their own countries,” said Hope Barbee, vice president for Double Date Packing, based in Coachella, CA.

DJ Ryan, the main date salesman for SunDate LLC, which also calls Coachella home, agreed. He said export sales for California dates are robust, adding that it might be “counterintuitive” but buyers from date-producing countries are some of his best customers.

The California date industry can trace its roots back more than 100 years. It is known that the U.S. Department of Agriculture established an experimental station in the desert near Mecca, CA in 1904. Previously, date expert Bernard Johnson studied the desert’s climate and how various date varieties performed for many years. He took copious noted and created a thorough records of six varieties that were brought to the United States in the 1890s from Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Iraq. A few years later, a major flood formed the Salton Sea and Johnson move his experimental garden just west of Indio, CA. He imported Deglet Noor offshoots from Algeria and Iraq for this garden and continued nurturing the plants. His gardens flourished, proving the Coachella Valley’s potential for becoming a date growing region. Johnson today is regarded as the “father” of California’s date industry.

Today, dates are touted for their nutritional content and their ability to withstand long storage periods. Fresh dates with 23 percent or less moisture are relatively safe from microbiological deterioration. However, physiological deterioration can result in darkening and loss of flavor and aroma.

Shelf life studies show that at room temperature (70 degrees F), dates have a shelf life of as long as a year depending upon the variety.  Even fresh dates (Medjool variety) can last six months and the Deglet Noors (the processing variety) can last for as long as 18 months (refrigerated) and 40 months (frozen).

Dates are a good source of fiber and contain significant quantities of vitamins and minerals. In their processed form dates are a very useful ingredients in many snack foods because of their low moisture and natural sugars. As such they are a favorite of cooks who can impart sweetness to their dishes without added sugars.