California dates thrive on Israeli methods

Southern California date plantation owner David Kohl is so sure of Israeli agricultural know-how that he’s adopting its radically different farm-management practices — even if other U.S. date farmers are skeptical.

Kohl came into the date-farming business in 2002 by accident. His family owned a large tract of land in Coachella Valley, southeast of Palm Springs, and decided to grow date palms for the homebuilding industry. When the real-estate market tanked, they turned to farming the fruit of the trees instead. And that has turned out to be a good, profitable business.

Israeli expert Moshe Tirat checks the dates fresh off the tree in Coachella Valley. photo/israel21c

Today Kohl and his family manage the 1,500-acre La Quinta Date Farm near the town of Thermal. He believes many of the practices of American date farms are obsolete and wasteful, so he hired an Israel date-growing expert, Moshe Tirat, to come to California and replicate Israeli practices.

Tirat was the head grower at Moshav Hatzeva in the Arava Desert from 1994 through 2012.

“Moshe was at our farm for about six or seven months,” relates Kohl, who has visited Israel several times. “The first step was huge. He changed our irrigation system. We wanted everything drip [irrigation]. In the United States, everyone who can, floods. That is the best way to grow dates, according to U.S. standards.

“Water, you see, is abundant here, but things could change. In Israel the cost to water a tree each year is $140. In California it is less than $7. That’s why people haven’t spent the money for drip. Moshe, who has looked at the industry, has found that you can really monitor each tree, give them 95 percent of their water and make the tree more productive so it grows more.”

La Quinta produces four varieties of dates: Medjool, Noor, Barhi and Zahidi. While the Medjool is by far the most popular date, says Kohl, the Noor is the favored date among connoisseurs worldwide.

By replicating some of the conditions of growing the Noor in Israel, Kohl expects to achieve a better product that brings out the tender candied flavor of the Noor, which is otherwise too dry in America.

Dates are picking up in popularity in the United States. The 2012 Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture reports an estimated 213 date farms in the United States, the majority of them in California.

Those California farms produce about 31,000 tons of dates on over 8,400 acres of land. Israel farms on about 11,120 acres of land, also producing about 31,000 tons annually, according to 2012 statistics from Israel.

But there are crucial differences: Israel plants only about 45 trees per acres, compared with 52 trees per acre in America. Yet Israel gets a higher yield per tree — 265 pounds of fruit in Israel, compared with 154 pounds of dates per tree in the United States.

La Quinta produces about 400 tons of dates a year, but yield is expected to jump 20 percent next year, thanks to Tirat’s changes.

Kohl expects that Israeli-style shoot thinning and pruning methods — removing the lowest dates rather than every other date as American farmers do — will also boost productivity.

Rough estimates are that Tirat’s methods have saved $60 per tree so far. And sometimes it’s the little things that count most, like small hacks to equipment that make workers’ lives easier and more productive, says Kohl, citing his admiration for the Israeli government’s interest in funding agricultural research to help Israeli date farmers become more productive.

Naysayers think the Israeli methods won’t work because of differences in California’s climate.

“My guess is our results are going to be good,” says Kohl, whose dates are sold in Whole Foods supermarkets and abroad.

“There is not a lot of sharing going on here,” he notes. “We want to be more like Israel where [they] share [knowledge] with everybody. The better quality the fruit, well, the better it is for everyone.”