Sweetness in the Sun

Sunday, November 06, 2016 3:35 PM

Growing dates in the Arava Desert

Thanks to the research being carried out at the Central Arava Research and Development Station, which is supported by KKL-JNF, date trees have become one of the most important sources of livelihood for Arava farmers.

This article is part of a series on innovative agriculture in the Arava Desert.
The Arava Peace Road (Derech HaShalom) is the name of a fascinating driving route that follows the length of the border between the State of Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan. All along the way travelers can view the cultivated fields of Idan, Hatzeva and Ein Yahav, stop at the observation points that overlook the the Arava streambed and the mountains of Edom, gaze at the reservoirs that irrigate the fields and hike in the picturesque lissan marl badlands.
One sight, however, that no visitor to the Arava can miss is the beautiful date palms that are an integral part of the local landscape. Date palms have become one of the bases of Arava agriculture, thanks to the earthworks and innovative agricultural research carried out by KKL-JNF with the help of its friends abroad.
Until a few years ago, there were about 125 – 200 acres of date plantations in the Arava, which were managed by a central administrative board. A great deal of Arava land was devoted to growing peppers, but it is dangerous for farmers to base their livelihood on one product, successful as it might be. As a result, today there are about 1,250 acres of dates being grown in the Arava, many of them on the farmer’s own lands rather than at centralized locations.
Date trees are perfect for the Arava since they are used to high temperatures. They need about 1 cubic meter of water per day, which comes out to a large amount of water per acre. In order to provide them with a sufficient amount of water, local farmers mix desalinated water with local brackish water. When date trees are watered exclusively with brackish water, the trees are not harmed but the yield is very low.
The Medjoul, the king of dates, originated from Morocco. However, disease killed off Moroccan
date palms 40 or 50 years ago, and the only ones that survived were moved to California. It was from there that some were brought to the Arava in the 1970s. This variety soon overtook the others for popularity. They are plump, soft and fleshy, weighing 20 to 30 grams as compared to typical dates that weigh six to 11 grams. The dates start full of water and as they mature, more sugar develops inside. Most of the Medjoul dates grown in the Arava are exported to the USA.
One of the problems that date growers have to deal with is what is known as “date blisters”, which is when the outer skin of the date separates from the fruit, rendering them unfit for marketing. This problem is especially common in Medjoul dates. Dates grown in the Jordan Valley are very prone to this problem, but in the Central Arava, the problem hardly exists, which is another advantage to growing dates in this region. As a result, local farmers are being encouraged to plant more date trees, and the amount of acres with date palms is constantly increasing.
Another reason that makes dates into an attractive crop for Arava farmers is the fact that they are much less labor-intensive than vegetables. In addition, dates can be stored after harvest for 12-18 months. In fact, dates that were picked eight months previously taste as if they were just harvested!
“Farmers are a hopelessly optimistic type of people,” says Dafna Harari of the Central Arava Research and Development Station. “They are always sure that new crops will be successful – if not this season, then the next season. We very much recommend growing dates in the Arava, but we are also looking into other possibilities to take the place of vegetables.  One very interesting alternative is growing apricot trees. Due to the unique climate of the area near the communities near Paran and Zukim, it is possible to grow apricots trees there that will bear fruit in April, a time where no country in the entire world can provide apricots. There’s always something new to look forward to in the Arava!”