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American Date Industry Readies Its Products for Ramadan

By M. Scott Bortot, Staff Writer,, Washington

Farmers and distributors offer solutions for short supplies of fresh dates

A shipment of medjool dates arrives at Halalco in Virginia.

In some years, Ramadan and nature are in harmony, and American Muslims can break their daily fasts with fresh, luscious dates.

This is not one of those years.

 "It is kind of a struggle because there is nothing we can do about it," said Mark Goulet, general manager of Shields Date Gardens in California. "Our yields will not change, so they have to have last year's dates."

Date harvesting season in America runs from about mid-August to mid-November, depending on the variety. With Ramadan this year starting around August 11, fresh dates will be absent from almost all Muslim Americans' iftar tables.

Dates will be available in stores, but most will be old and not the best quality. That's why Mohammed Abdul Aleem, chief executive and co-founder of online portal IslamiCity, advised his customers to make preparations.

"We've already sent out our first broadcast that if people want to order their dates in advance so that they can get it at the first of Ramadan, they need to order now," Aleem said. "Last year we started educating our users by saying, 'Look, if you want to buy dates, if you want to buy fresh dates, you can buy them right now and freeze them.'"

Online date retailers such as Aleem and date producers agree that freezing dates is the best way to guarantee near-fresh taste over long periods. When it comes time to use the dates, Aleem suggests covering them with a wet towel and placing them in an oven at a low temperature. This way, he says, the dates will retain their natural moisture.

American date farmers estimate they produce 30 million pounds of the crop annually. California grows about 95 percent of the country's dates. The varieties grown in the United States originate mostly in Iraq, Algeria and Morocco.

The most popular date variety in America - for Muslims and non-Muslims alike - is the medjool. First transplanted to America from Morocco in the 1920s, medjool date palms thrive in California's Coachella Valley and Bard Valley. Medjool dates are valued for their taste and thick, meaty flesh and firm body.

For this Ramadan, medjools will be hard to find. Aleem, though, has a supply he ordered for his customers through his source at Leja Farms in the Coachella Valley.

Greg Leja, sales executive of Leja Farms, said his operation stores, packs and sends medjools for Aleem's customers. For Leja Farms to store an entire crop of medjools or other dates from last year's harvest for Ramadan is not practical.

"It becomes an expense because you have to have storage space and hold the crop in freezing rooms," Leja said. Rather than hold the harvest, Leja sells to the general market.

Leja and other date producers say date sales for Ramadan have generally been increasing, but now that Ramadan has slipped to the early side of the harvest, they expect sales to fall off. Only 5 percent of Leja Farms' date sales will come from Ramadan this year.

"When [Ramadan] was back in November or even early December, my sales for it were about 25 percent," Leja said. That timing is ideal for growers, packers and shippers because they can reduce long-term storage costs.

It is also great for consumers because dates are plentiful and fresh.

Even if the dates aren't fresh, Muslims still need them to break the fast during Ramadan. For Abdul Mateen Chida, owner of Islamic supermarket Halalco in Virginia, selling dates during Ramadan is easy - when supplies are available.

"By the time we placed an order for the dates, our supplier, the main supplier [in California], he was out of them," Chida said. "So we had to get it from here and there and from different sources."

Although some California dates will be on Halalco's shelves, Chida said they will share space with dates from Algeria and Tunisia. Customers, however, will be disappointed.

"The United States' quality of dates is far superior to the other ones," Chida said. "The medjool dates in America are superior to any other dates."

Those who are disappointed by the dates they eat this Ramadan can prepare for next year: The fresh dates will be available on store shelves and online by the end of December, ready for freezing. Ramadan and the date harvest will be in harmony again in about 20 years.

About U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) engages international audiences on issues of foreign policy, society and values to help create an environment receptive to U.S. national interests.

... Payvand News - 08/02/10 ... --

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