In the burning desert wasteland along the Arava highway, it is hard to miss the bright green treetops of the date palms, looking like desert oases. These groves were planted in the late 1960s and upgraded and expanded over the past decade to encompass hundreds of dunams of medjool (majhoul) cultivar date palms.
Farmers in the Arava have made their living – and a quite profitable one, too – over the past decade from peppers, and many have become millionaires because of the vegetable’s popularity in European markets. Butmore recently Israeli growers have struggled with competition in Western Europe from farmers from other Mediterranean nations, while Europe has been flooded with agricultural products because of the trade war and sanctions on Russia, alongside the calls for boycotting Israeli goods. Pepper exports have plunged.
A number of farmers have reported a partial recovery in demand for Israeli peppers in Europe over the past year. But for now, the government has looked for ways to support the Arava farmers, including finding new crops. The solution is to find economic alternatives that make use of the region’s natural advantages, crops that will ripen before their competitors due to the Arava’s warm winters and hot summers. These include flavorful organic hanging strawberries, hothouse melons, huge cucumbers and a plant that can be used to produce insulin.
But the biggest success of them all is the medjool date , which has taken pride of place from pepper — a major success story for Israeli farmers all over the world, including in Western Europe, where the impact of the boycott against Israeli goods are noticeable.
A large number of date varieties are sold all over the world, but Israel now is the major exporter of one of the large, soft and relatively expensive medjool, considered the king of dates all over the world. The date is grown in the Jordan Valley both in Israel and the West Bank and in the Arava desert. Supermarkets that refuse to sell the dates from the West Bank, for political reasons, receive dates from the Arava.
Three quarters of the market
Out of 40 tons of global annual medjool consumption, Israeli farmers produce about three quarters, according to data from the “Date Desk” of the Israel Plants Production and Marketing Board. In other words, Israel produces some 75% of the entire world production of medjool, though other Israeli groups put this at closer to 65%.
The entire global date market is some eight million tons annually, of which Israeli farmers grow 40 tons a year, 80% of which are medjool dates. Medjool came originally from native Moroccan date palms, via the United States. Other date cultivars grown in Israel include the Tunisian Deglet Nour; Halawi, originally from Iraq; the Egyptian Ameri; the soft, chocolate-brown Khadrawi and the yellow Zahidi.
The long list of supposed natural health advantages of dates have made it the favorite sweet for dietitians to recommend. It is packed with minerals, B vitamins, antioxidants and nutritional fiber. It helps balance the digestive tract, heart and circulatory system (by lowering bad cholesterol levels), aids in preventing high blood pressure and helps protect bones by providing calcium and magnesium.
The medjool is the growers’ favorite, too. They make a relatively high profit on it, an estimated 33% before tax (based on data TheMarker received from farmers). This high profit potential has encouraged a wave of new plantings these days, and you can see fresh shoots alongside year-old trees in the Arava. In the eastern part of the country, from the kibbutzim in the Arava north to Lake Kinneret, farmers are planting dates in enormous numbers – as are Palestinian farmers around Jericho. Over 2,000 dunams (500 acres) have been planted with dates in recent years, and 100 new farmers have joined the business. In Moshav Ein Yahav, which has a large date orchard of 500 dunams, farmers plan to plant another 200 dunams soon.
The farms in the Arava and Jordan Valley export some 90% of their medjool date production.
“It’s been a profitable crop in recent years,” explains Israel Farmers Federation Chairman Meir Zur. “Israeli farmers know how to switch from crop to crop, to what looks to be better, and if they don’t have anything else to plant. The vegetable situation is very complicated, so they go for dates, which is a good branch. Is it also a safe branch? It’s impossible to know.”
Switching to growing dates is not trivial. Given today’s prices, date palms take eight years to repay their investment after planting – and no one knows what the situation will be in eight years’ time. Farmers in the date business say the fun thing about dates is that the illusion lasts a long time: For eight years you delude yourself that one day you will make money. Nonetheless, many new farmers have gone into the date business, and many more are on their way.
“I’m worried about the amount of planting,” Zur says. “I’m not sure the global market will develop and grow at the pace that the amounts of dates will grow. Most of the dates are intended for export. The local market is small and still does not know how to appreciate quality; in other words, it is not willing to pay the high price for the choice date.”
World markets are now showing two concurrent trends: growth in both demand and supply. Large populations, such as in India, have started consuming dates, and the fruit enjoys the image of a healthy food good for athletes. But other countries are also planting large amounts of medjool date palms.
“In my opinion, the prices in the markets will fall because other exporters will enter and competition will begin between Israeli exporters around the world,” says Zur.
Profitability is quite high for dates, compared to other agricultural branches, he notes. “Would it be so terrible if the profitability moderates a bit? One of the biggest problems is that in our generation there will not be any new varieties. The yield per dunam is low: 1-1.5 tons, compared to 10 tons for peppers. So the damage to the price of dates will be important for profitability,” said Zur.
Alternatives to Europe
Gilad Dotan from Ein Yahav has run the moshav’s cooperative orchard for 15 years. It has 550 dunams of medjool and nour dates. The nour trees were planted in the late 1960s, while the oldest of the medjool trees are now having their bar mitzvah, alongside a large number of younger trees, mostly about five years old.
The orchard produces 400 tons of dates a year, says Dotan. The forecast is for 600 tons when all the young trees mature. The date palm begins producing fruit at age three, and reaches full maturity at 12, and then produces 120 kilograms of dates a year. Date palms can reach the age of 70, and the main limitation is their height: The older they are, the taller they grow – and this makes it harder to pick the dates, says Dotan. A well-managed grove produces 30,000 shekels ($7,710) per dunam but has expenses of only 20,000 shekels, which leaves 10,000 shekels in gross profit, he says.
While the date industry in Israel is rather large and run by the Date Desk, the industry has no supervision or quotas. Growers do discuss production between themselves, conduct an annual census of date palms and calculate sales forecasts. Export markets are then chosen for development based on this information. The Date Desk has now entered and is developing a very large market in India, where the top decile of the population numbers 120 million people, who can afford to buy dates, says Dotan.
India reflects the trend among farmers to try and find alternatives to European markets. Israeli farmers who participated in the large annual fruit exhibition Fruit Logistica in Berlin in February reported they were treated almost like lepers.
“Two years ago they still chased after us at the exhibition, today they avoid Israeli fruit,” says a date grower. “It is a quiet boycott. Supermarkets don’t order because they prefer to avoid provocations from those who oppose Israel,” said the grower.
“The market in Europe has not closed and remains stable, but we want to escape from there because of the boycotts and crowding,” says Dotan. “If we do not want to lower prices, we must develop new markets such as India, Australia, the East Coast of the United States and Turkey. Muslims are big consumers of dates. It will be interesting to see how the migration of a million Muslims who reached Europe last year will influence date consumption.”
The Arava is perfect
The medjool date palm originated in Morocco, but then underwent improvement in the U.S., and this is the variety that ultimately arrived in Israel. The tree likes doses of cold in the winter and real heat from April through July, only a little rain and low humidity. All these characteristics have made the Arava an ideal place for growing high-quality dates. Similar conditions, though more humid, can be found all along the Syrian-African Rift, which includes the entire Jordan Valley. Another major advantage the Arava has is that the beetle known as the red palm weevil, which has killed decorative palm trees all over Israel, has not yet reached the Arava.
Shai Stern, the head of the Date Desk, estimates that the Israeli date is only at the beginning of its growth in world markets, and we have yet to see its full potential. “Because we are the leader in this category in the world, we have a central role in developing the markets,” he says.
“Two years ago, we decided along with the Agriculture Ministry to promote the date in India, and we have an office there. There they understand that the Israeli medjool is not like those that come from Iraq or Iran, but the Israeli date is the jewel in the crown. The highest quality and cleanest. In Israel we are careful about spraying, fair pay for workers, environmental protection. That is why our dates are on all the shelves in the supermarkets in developed countries,” says Stern.