Califonia Bountiful

The sweet spot

March/April 2020 California Bountiful magazine

A nutritious indulgence, dates deliver satisfaction to growing number of fans

More online: Watch "Oasis Date Gardens" onĀ California Bountiful TV.

Humans have cultivated dates for at least 8,000 years. Today, nearly all California dates are grown and harvested in the Coachella Valley, home of Oasis Date Gardens. Photo courtesy of Oasis Date Gardens

Looking for a sweet addition to a healthy diet? Mother Nature has one for you, and it dates all the way back to antiquity.

It grows on palm trees in the desert. It's loaded with vitamins, fiber and flavor. It can be served as is, baked into bread, sliced, diced, made into paste and savored in a shake.

It's the date—a Middle Eastern fruit brought to the arid regions of southeastern California more than a century ago. In the past 20 years, date acreage in California has more than doubled, and growth is ongoing.

What's fueling the boom? People in the date business point to an interest in health-conscious eating as helping boost the fruit's consumption.

Dates offer sweetness with a lower glycemic index than refined sugars, provide moisture and binding properties, and offer a grain-free source of carbohydrates, qualities that make them popular with adherents of vegan, paleo, gluten-free or whole-food diets.

Kate Flynn of Sun & Swell Foods in Santa Barbara is one of the growing number of date devotees. Her snacks combine dates with oatmeal, lemon, cinnamon or cacao and are made with busy people in mind—people such as Flynn herself.

Bryan and Kate Flynn use dates from Oasis to make their Sun & Swell snacks. Photo courtesy of Kate Flynn

A date with destiny

A few years ago, Flynn was a management consultant, working long hours in the office and on the road.

"I was always looking for little grab-and-go snacks to help fuel me throughout the day when I wasn't home," she said. "I couldn't find any."

So, in 2016, Flynn and her husband, Bryan, launched Sun & Swell to make the very snacks she wanted—whole foods, six or fewer ingredients (items you'd find in the pantry, she said), organic and vegan.

One of their first decisions: Use dates. Flynn had discovered them just before the couple set up shop; she was trying not to eat any sugar beyond what came naturally in fruit, and found the date to be ideal thanks to its sweetness and density of nutrients such as fiber, B vitamins, potassium and magnesium.

"Somebody called them once 'nature's candy,' which I think is a great way to describe them," Flynn said.

Her husband remembered them from childhood road trips, when his parents would stop for date shakes in Palm Springs. Those memories led the Flynns to look for a California date farm to work with—and the search quickly led to Oasis Date Gardens in Thermal and a chat with Bob Harrick, vice president of sales and marketing for the farm's parent company. The couple settled on a variety called Zahidi, which Harrick describes as sweet with a sugary, nutty flavor.

Harrick said products such as Flynn's, which aim to marry nutrition and convenience, represent part of a larger trend.

"The millennial demographic reflected a surge in 'eating on the go' (and) turned to nutritional food bars with dates being the binding base," Harrick said. "Federal labeling law requirements have also contributed to parents being more aware of searching for healthy foods for their families."

Their increasing availability in big box and club stores has also enabled wider consumption, he said.

In addition to appealing to health-minded eaters, dates have attracted interest as a gourmet indulgence among the foodie set. Harrick credits TV food networks and chefs with boosting the fruit's popularity in recent years. In the farm's onsite restaurant, Oasis Café, date shakes, cakes and bread are among the biggest hits, as well as a decadent appetizer of Medjool dates stuffed with goat cheese or cream cheese and wrapped in bacon, Harrick said.

Ty Cox and Bob Harrick of Oasis Date Gardens look over the date crop. Photo: © 2020 Kevin Marty

'Feet in water, head in fire'

Although the date is one of mankind's oldest foods, with cultivation beginning somewhere around 8,000 years ago, it is a relative newcomer to the U.S. Experiments conducted by private grower Bernard Johnson in the first decade of the 20th century showed the Coachella Valley, with a climate similar to the Middle East, to be a viable date-growing region. To produce fruit, date palms need groundwater, an arid climate and high heat, giving rise to the expression "feet in water, head in fire."

Johnson cultivated trees using offshoots the U.S. Department of Agriculture had imported in the 1890s from modern-day Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and Iraq. The first date growers' cooperative was formed in 1913. Today, California is by far the top state for date growing. The Golden State had more than 11,000 acres of date palms in production in 2018, with two-thirds of that in Riverside County and the rest in Imperial County.

Date trees are dioecious, meaning there are male and female trees. When the blooms appear in early February, crews gather pollen from the male trees; in March, each female tree's blossoms will be dusted with pollen so they will set fruit. Harvest season begins around the end of August and lasts into late October or early November.

Palms begin producing when they're about 5 years old and about 8 feet tall, and can reach heights of 60 feet or more, Harrick said. In the past, "palmeros" would climb the trees using spikes, ropes or ladders to reach the dates. For improved safety, harvest crews now are harnessed into canastas, platforms with railings that can be elevated with forklifts.

After harvest, the dates go to the Oasis packinghouse. Some won't leave the property—they'll end up in the café or the date-shake machine—and the others go to domestic and international retail and wholesale, including the Sun & Swell snack manufactory in Ventura.

Dates from Oasis are used in Sun & Swell snacks. Photo courtesy of Kate Flynn

Kids love 'em

Most of Sun & Swell's retail sales are in Southern California, but the company sells its snacks online as well. You'll find them at coffee shops, fitness studios, corporate offices—"places where people are looking for a healthy grab-and-go snack throughout their day," Flynn said.

There may be a new generation of date lovers growing up. Flynn said that while busy adults were her target audience, she discovered the snacks also have "a huge fan base among children."

"We found a lot of moms that love to give it to their kids," she said. "Now we stand behind the fact that they're kid-approved."

There's still lots of room for the market to grow—Harrick estimates only 7% to 8% of American households enjoy dates, despite recent increases. Giving the next generation a taste for dates just may help ensure the fruit's future in the California desert is a sweet one.

Kevin Hecteman

Rescued from oblivion

If you enjoy snacking on California-grown Medjool dates, you have an enterprising federal scientist named Walter Swingle to thank.

Medjools came to the U.S. in 1927 in the form of 11 offshoots brought from Morocco by Swingle, who worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Date marketer Bob Harrick said there was a soil-borne disease in Morocco called Bayoud disease, which causes trees to wilt. The offshoots, thought to be free of the malady, were planted in quarantine in Nevada to see what would happen.

"When they found out that that disease would not spread, some of those shoots were sent to Oasis Date Gardens, and we planted those," Harrick said. All Medjool date palms grown in the U.S. today descend from some of those Moroccan plants, according to Oasis.

It's the largest and most delicate variety and is very sweet, Harrick said. The Medjool remains the top variety, but Harrick's company has upward of a dozen date varieties in its catalog, including the Zahidi that Kate Flynn uses in her snacks.

The No. 2 variety is the Deglet Noor, which Harrick said is sweet, with more of a cashew flavor. There's also Barhi, a sweet date, and Thoory, a semi-sweet and very chewy date. Oasis also grows Dayri, which Harrick called semi-sweet and very fibrous, and Khaisab, which he called sweet and smoky.

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