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Medjool dates from Israel proving to be 'foodie' favourite

The recycling of waste water has been instrumental to the flourishing of Israeli date crops, allowing Israel to claim 60 percent of the global Medjool market today from just a toehold in the 1980s.

That formula may be hitting its limits. This precious source of water is now just enough to water the current crop and further expansion will have to wait for a desalination system to kick in. “It’s all about water,” Elkasslasy says, pointing out a missed bunch of dates to pickers standing on a raised platform hugging a tall palm. To ensure no drop is wasted, plantations use sensors that monitor root-absorption, and research and development centres experiment with different grades of water and dwarfing trees. Farmers rising at dawn often call the centres for the daily formula to punch into irrigation computers to guarantee water efficiency, they said.

While the Medjool makes up less than 1 percent of the 7.9 million ton global date market -- Egypt and Iran are top producers of dates overall -- it’s the chief variety among the 32,000 tons of dates grown in Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank each year.

Part of its success owes to a re-branding of the fruit by marketers including Hadiklaim, the Israeli date growers’ cooperative, as an exotic delicacy displayed in supermarkets such as Fairway, Marks & Spencer and Coop Swiss. Foodies around the world have added the Medjool to their shopping lists.

Last year, Israeli farmers produced 21,570 tons of Medjools, up 17-fold from 1990, according to Hadiklaim. Among the 14,500 tons of dates Israel exported last year, about 10,000 were Medjools, agriculture officials say. Overall, the volume of Israel’s date exports jumped 23 percent last year to 247 million shekels ($70 million), reaching 27 countries across five continents, they say.

With Israel’s annual rainfall averaging only 1.2 billion cubic meters -- about half the nation’s water consumption, according to the government’s water and sewage authority -- better ways to irrigate crops have always been a priority.

Innovation, starting with the Netafim Irrigation Co.’s development of a drip irrigation system 50 years ago, has contributed to Israel’s success with the Medjool, says Larry Duane Geohring, an agricultural researcher at Cornell University. “Israel is a leader in water technologies, recycling and conservation,” said Geohring.

The United Nations has identified Israel as a leader in wastewater recycling. Mekorot, Israel’s national water company, says Israel recycles 75 percent of its wastewater, followed by Spain at 12 percent.

At Kibbutz Gilgal, Elkasslasy spends months checking evaporation rates, monitoring data from sensors planted among tree roots and punching numbers into a computer that calculates each palm’s water requirement, then delivers that amount almost to the drop.

Gilgal business manager Doron Eliahou doesn’t regret the millions of dollars the kibbutz invested in its dates as it finally begins to see a return on its money.

“Now, at least, I can say it’s been worthwhile,” he said.


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