An Imperial County, Calif., farming company is planting more than 3,500 acres of palm trees across the Colorado River in Yuma County, Ariz., to produce Medjool dates.

Imperial Date Gardens, Inc. (IDG) now produces the same date variety on 300 acres at the company’s Bard, Calif., farm. The company began its Arizona expansion in 1994 on the south Yuma Mesa in Somerton, located south of Yuma and about five miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

“We expanded in Somerton as there wasn’t enough open land in the Bard area due to the area’s large vegetable acreage,” according to Gus Nuñez, IDG sales president. “Land on the south Yuma Mesa was cheaper at the time. We also had the opportunity to utilize drip irrigation.”

About 1,640 acres at the Somerton farm have been planted with the remainder to be completed by about 2014. The land includes company-owned land and state trust land.

“Of the 3.5 million pounds of dates grown by Imperial Date Gardens in 2008, about 3 million pounds were grown at the Arizona farm,” Nuñez said.

California’s Coachella and Imperial valleys have traditionally served as ground zero for Western date production. Statistics from the agricultural commissioner offices in Imperial and Riverside counties peg the area’s combined date industry value at $48 million from 8,700 planted acres. IDG’s total Yuma County expansion represents about 60 percent of California’s date acreage.

Until the IDG expansion, the Medjool date industry in Arizona covered about 500 acres in mostly Yuma and Maricopa counties, according to Glenn Wright, date palm Extension specialist, University of Arizona Yuma Agricultural Center, Yuma.

While a handful of varieties are planted in California and Arizona, the Medjool and Detlet Noor are among the most popular.

Lorrie Cooper, manager of the California Date Commission and the California Date Administrative Committee, says 95 percent of the Coachella Valley date crop is Detlet Noor.

The Medjool, served to foreign kings for centuries, is often viewed as the “Cadillac” of dates and is sold mostly fresh.

Isabel Nuñez started the family date operation in Bard in the mid to late 1960s and currently serves as IDG’s chief executive officer.

“We grow the Medjool dates organically, but the dates are not certified organic,” Gus Nuñez said.

Date palms, Phoenix dactylifera, originally came from Morocco. When the fungal bayoud disease threatened to decimate the Moroccan industry, 11 offshoots were sent to the U.S. in 1927. After a seven-year quarantine in Nevada, the nine surviving plants were sent to Southern California. Cuttings were planted in Bard in 1944 by Stanley Dillman, an area date pioneer.

“Date palm trees can begin yielding fruit after three to four years,” Nuñez said. “Trees yield enough fruit after about 10 years for growers to begin getting their money back. If you can get 200 pounds of dates from a mature tree, you’re ahead of the ball game.”

IDG expects a survival rate of 75 to 85 percent for a new planting. Five-year-old trees can yield 25 to 30 pounds of fruit. About 80 to 100 pounds is produced from 10-year-old trees. Full grown, 15-to-20-foot trees yield about 200 pounds.

Medjool date growers receive about $1.25 to $1.50 per pound, Nuñez says. “Prices remain fairly stable throughout the year. Grower prices have increased slightly, but nothing compared to the increases seen for many other crops.”

The company utilizes its own tree shoots for new plantings. More than 60 trees are planted per acre in 100-tree rows spaced about 26 feet apart. Once trees reach about 15 feet, IDG sells most of them for ornamental use.

“We are date farmers first,” Nuñez said.

According to the California Date Administrative Committee, most commercial trees are grown from the offshoots of a mother tree. Each acre has one male tree and up to 50 female trees. Females bear the fruit; males produce pollen.

In the center of each IDG 160-acre palm tree plot is a well that pumps 1,600 to 1,800 gallons of water each minute from an underground aquifer.

Above-ground drip irrigation with four emitters arranged in a circular pattern around the tree base deliver up to 100 gallons of water daily to each mature tree. Younger trees require about 30 to 60 gallons daily. Irrigation occurs in the morning.

Pumping costs average about $1,500 a month per plot. The water pH level is about 7.5 and the salinity level is acceptable.

The company’s Bard operation is flood irrigated with Colorado River water purchased at $63 per acre annually.

The greatest challenge to growing Medjools, Nuñez says, is acquiring skilled labor. About 500 to 600 employees are employed during the thinning and harvest periods.

“There are a lot of specialized skills we teach employees — pollination, de-thorning, tying fruit off to an adjacent frond, thinning, bagging, and harvesting,” Nuñez said.

Dates mature in six to seven months and are hand-harvested from September to early December.

Harvested fruit is sent to Datepac, LLC in Yuma, the largest Medjool packing and marketing facility in the U.S. IDG dates are sold fresh in the U.S. at major retailers including Costco, Albertsons, Safeway, plus wholesale terminal markets on the East Coast.

U.S. fresh date consumption continues to be on the increase. IDG’s expansion is destined for a market where demand exceeds the supply.

Nuñez said, “People eat dates fresh like bananas. There’s more potassium in 100 grams of Medjool dates than in bananas. Antioxidant levels are right up there with blueberries and pomegranates.”

The beneficial potassium level is why IDG applies potassium fertilizer to the soil three times annually. Large amounts of nitrogen are applied to young trees.

Unlike other crops, pest and disease issues are few in Medjool dates. Rainy or hot and humid conditions can cause dates to sour, a target for the date beetle.

Cooper, with the Date Commission, says date trees up to 60 to 70 years old can still produce good yields. She says many of the Coachella Valley’s 80 to 90 growers are removing older trees and replanting. Urban encroachment issues and water remain the top issues facing the Valley growers. Dates are also grown in the Death Valley area of Inyo County.

email: cblake@farmpress.com