American Date Industry Readies Its Products for Ramadan
By M. Scott Bortot, Staff Writer,
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
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
"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
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.
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