Sweet, succulent, nutritious Medjool dates are the pride of Morocco, where they have a history of cultivation stretching back thousands of years. However, happily for North American date fans, horticulturists brought Medjool shoots to the U.S. in the 1920s, and today, the descendants of these trees thrive under the watchful eye of the Bard Valley Date Growers Association. Once harvested, the dates sorted, graded, and packed by Datepac and shipped around the world.
Datepac’s headquarters are in Yuma, Arizona, the epicenter of the Medjool date cultivation industry. This is where, early one June morning, we spoke with David Baxter, the company’s Brand Manager. He is originally from Michigan and joined the company a year ago. When we talked, the temperature in Yuma had already reached ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit.
“From flower to harvest, dates need one hundred days of over one hundred degree temperatures, so from now until mid or late September, we will hit one hundred every day. That’s what makes dates successful here. It’s also very dry, and there’s not a lot of humidity, but we have the Colorado River, and it provides all the water the trees need,” Baxter explains.
We also spoke with Juan Guzman, Director of Operations and Quality Assurance, who has been involved with the date industry for eighteen years, the last nine with Datepac. He is proud to note that no pesticides are used on any of the farms involved; there is no genetic modification, “and we conduct weekly visits and audits to all of the growers and packing houses to make sure they are following the food safety standards and growing practices that dictate we do not use any pesticides on the farms. We are growing organically, although not all of our farms are organically-certified as there is a cost, but our practices are organic,” he says.
“The industry here was founded by growers in the early eighties who decided to plant only Medjool dates in the Bard Valley, which is in California, a little bit into Arizona and into Mexico,” he explains. “This southwestern region is a prime location for both climate and soil because many years ago, the Colorado River used to run more widely through our land, so there is a very rich soil. There’s the right temperature, and it’s an ideal micro-climate for Medjool date production,” explains Guzman.
“From the start, the growers were amicable to each other, because the industry was new, and there was a lot of trial and error, and the growers would help each other, and then they decided to get together to form the Bard Valley Date Growers Association (BVDGA), which is similar to the California Date Commission. They were inspired by the work they did and decided to replicate the best elements of the California organization without going into a full-blown commission. The difference is that commissions are regulated under federal marketing law for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but as an association and cooperative, we don’t have to fall under those tight regulations, and it gave the growers flexibility, which is what they wanted.”
The association was founded in 1984 for all of the growers to come together to promote consumption of Medjool dates and establish grading standards, which according to Guzman, have become the best in the U.S., if not the entire world.
As the association grew, the members realized there was no reason to have so many different brands. In those early years, each grower had a packing house and would pack under its own brand name, while specifying it was a member of the BVDGA. “But,” says Guzman, “it was the name recognition of the association and not the individual grower’s brand name that was driving sales.”
As a result, Datepac was formed as a cooperative. It continues to follow the standards set by the BVDGA and oversees five packing houses: two in Arizona, one in California, and two in Mexico. It markets all products under the brand name of Natural Delights.
Today, in the Bard Valley, there are eleven growers operating 250 farms which together have seven thousand acres under cultivation with seventy trees per acre, each producing approximately 150 pounds of dates. Among them are what Guzman calls the ‘Big Six.” These are six of the original twelve Medjool date trees which came from Morocco, and now stand seventy-two feet high and continue to be among the best producers. Propagation is done by planting offshoots from the mother tree, and these take about ten years to get to full production.
“During peak harvest, we have 4,000 workers, 2,300 on the farm side and 1,800 at the packing house,” says Guzman. “We have a workforce that crosses the Mexican border every day, and we also bring workers across on temporary visas.”
“We’re right on the border, and there are a lot of high-level conversations happening that I can’t comment on as they are far removed from the everyday,” adds Guzman. “But we have managed to operate and will continue to operate. People who cross every day are now getting up a couple of hours earlier to make sure they can be here on time. We all adjust and make it work.”
In addition to the whole, pitted, and chopped dates packaged by Datepac under the Natural Delights brand, there are coconut date rolls, almond date rolls, and a seasonal pumpkin date roll. This past February, two new snacks, a cacao-pecan date roll and a chopped date roll, rolled in coconut flour, were introduced.
But is the phrase ‘nutritious snack’ an oxymoron? Not if dates are involved, says Baxter, citing the fruit’s natural sugar and potassium as beneficial. “They are also a good source of fiber with about four grams of fiber in a serving of dates. The fiber and sugar work together, so you don’t get a sugar rush like you do from a candy bar or refined sugar, and that results in a lower glycemic index.”
He goes on to talk about recent studies which have validated some of the so-called ‘old wives’ tales’ about the benefits of dates, including their beneficial effects during pregnancy, resulting in a higher rate of easier births. The Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology published a study in 2017 that compared seventy-seven women who ate dates daily during pregnancy to those who did not and found that they were less likely to require that oxytocin be administered during labor. “We can’t validate those expensive studies,” he says, “but we’re glad the universities have taken on that challenge. If you do a Google search, you’ll find a lot of information about the health benefits of dates.”
Dates contain a significant level of potassium that helps regulate blood pressure, which, in turn, reduces the chance of developing strokes and heart attack. Their level of beta-carotene and vitamin A can help preserve vision, decreasing chances of developing macular degeneration. Because of the potassium, magnesium, and calcium, they are also helpful in regulating hormones, promoting growth in children, aiding recovery in adults after injury or illness, and may help prevent osteoporosis. Moreover, they work as an energy booster and are a great pick-me-up and workout snack. No wonder ancient cultures called dates the ‘tree of life.’
Dates have many culinary uses, beyond the tried and true date squares and date and nut bread. They are a great addition to muffins and soft, chewy cookies as well as granola, energy bars, and trail mix. They can be made into syrup for pancakes or stirred into yogurt. But they are equally at home in savory dishes such as chicken kale salad with chopped Medjool dates, roasted sweet potatoes and honey ginger beets or with a warm dish such as Medjool Date Kung Pao Chicken. Many such recipes are available on the Natural Delights website.
We were also intrigued by the ‘super-charge’ smoothie recipes, which were designed specifically for energy, recovery, or meal replacement to give more insight into what people are actually eating when making a smoothie.
We tend to associate smoothies with fresh fruit, but as Baxter explained, dates are indeed fresh fruit, although some people think of them as dried fruit, because of their color.
“A date is a fresh produce item. It is not dried or processed, unlike dried fruits such as apricots or raisins which have sulphites to preserve freshness. So, we don’t use preservatives, because dates have natural characteristics which give them a long shelf life. At room temperature, they are good for a year, and if refrigerated, can go well beyond a year without any preservatives. After they are harvested, we grade, sort, and pack, and that’s it. Consumers today are focused on what they are putting in their bodies and want food that is healthy, natural, and sustainable, and that is where we are focusing our efforts, on people who want that kind of information.”
Because of a commitment to sustainability, Datepac will begin using completely recyclable tubs made from post-consumer recycled plastic. “What we’re doing is taking green plastics from products like Sprite and Perrier, plastics that are hard to find a home for because everyone wants clear plastic, but we’re giving a home to it, so it doesn’t end up in a landfill,” says Baxter. “That’s important because consumers look to companies to do everything they can to lessen their impact on the environment. And for us, as a company, we also want to lessen our impact because it’s just not sustainable to use virgin material,” he says.
“What motivates me from a sales standpoint is that we get to be close to the growers and the people working in the fields and in the plants and then working out the sales and marketing part and seeing the impact of putting this high quality product in the market,” Baxter says.
“It’s hard to talk about yourself, but I feel proud of the work we do,” adds Guzman. “We have thousands of people out on the farms working in hundred-degree weather, and that is not easy, and yet they show up every day and work six or seven days a week during the harvest. We couldn’t do any of this work without those people, and so it is a labor of love but a very hard labor of love,” he shares.
“I feel blessed to be part of an industry that has developed a market around wonderful fresh produce and that we have people who are helping us in the cause of getting the good word on dates out there.”