DATE Growing: A New Industry for Southwest States

The date palm, Phoenix dactylifera, was introduced into Florida and California, when these territories belonged to Spain, by Spanish explorers and missionaries nearly two centuries ago. Date palms are still growing in the San Diego Mission at San Diego, Calif. which were planted more than 150 years ago.

Choice varieties of dates can be propagated only by means of offshoots which sprout from the base of the trunk. The first successful importation of offshoots of standard date varieties was made in the summer of 1900 by the United States Department of Agriculture in cooperation with the University of Arizona. These offshoots were planted at the cooperative date garden at Tempe, Ariz., and more than 60 per cent of them lived and are still growing in this garden. They are now splendid palms, 25 to 30 feet high.

Date palms can be grown successfully only in hot irrigated valleys in the southwestern United States. Dates are now grown commercially on a large scale in the Coachella Valley lying just north of the Imperial Valley about 100 miles east of Los Angeles, Calif. They are being planted on a large scale in the Salt River Valley in Arizona, and on a somewhat smaller scale near Yuma; Ariz., and in the Imperial Valley in extreme southeastern California. Perhaps 25,000 or 30,000 date palms are now planted in California and Arizona in orchard form, and plantings are being extended very rapidly, especially in the Coachella Valley of California and in the Salt River Valley of Arizona.

FIG. 67.—Eight-year-old Deglet Noor date palms in full fruit in private garden near Indio, Calif., October, 1924. Some of these palms yielded more than 200 pounds of fruit

Setting Offshoots in Orchard Form

Good-sized offshoots properly rooted while still attached to the mother tree can be set out in orchard form in the late spring or early summer and if handled carefully take root within a few weeks and make some growth the first year. They grow rapidly the second or third year and begin to bear the fourth or fifth year, although they do not come into full bearing until the sixth or seventh years; sometimes even later. The young date palms produce abundant offshoots, the number depending upon the variety, ranging usually from 10 to 20 to the palm, but as the palm reaches the age of 10 or 12 years offshoot production ceases. As the date palm is propagated only from offshoots, the slow rate of offshoot production constitutes a natural bar to any sudden expansion of date plantings, for only home-grown offshoots are available for new plantings as the importation of date offshoots from abroad is now impossible under the present quarantine laws except when made by the Federal Government itself for experimental purposes.

It is highly important for anyone proposing to grow dates to realize that the date palm, unlike commonly grown fruit trees, can not be budded or grafted and consequently 1t 1s very important that varieties set out be suitable for commercial culture in the region where they are to be grown. Offshoots of good varieties are scarce and expensive, the price ranging from $10 to $25 an offshoot, and if 50 are planted to the acre, as is commonly done, the cost of nursery stock alone amounts to from $500 to $1,250 an acre. If such an expensive planting is brought into bearing and found to be of a variety unsuited to the region, there is nothing to do but dig up the palms at great cost and plant some other variety. It is therefore necessary to test out carefully date varieties in all regions where it is proposed to make date plantings, in order to determine which varieties are most likely to succeed on a commercial scale.

Seedling Dates Inferior

Dates can be grown from seed but seedling dates are usually inferior to the mother variety and probably not more than 1 per cent of the seedlings are of sufficiently high quality to justify planting their offshoots on a commercial scale. Even where a choice new variety is originated in this way it is not possible to get enough offshoots to make any sizeable plantation until 20 to 30 years after the variety is originated. Large plantations of seedlings are hard to manage, too, since each palm is in effect a different variety and it is very difficult, to market such a mixed production.

It should be remembered that the date palm is a diœcious plant, the male and female flowers being borne on different palms. Two or three male palms are usually planted to an acre of bearing dates, and the flowers of the female palm are pollinated by hand in the spring. Date palms bloom in January, February, March, and April, but mostly from the middle of February to the middle of April; and ripen in the United States from the middle of August to the middle of December, usually from the middle of September to the middle of November.

Great progress has been made in working out methods for picking, curing, packing, and storing dates, and the American-grown dates are of a much superior quality and appearance to those grown abroad. The quantity of dates now produced in the United States is about 1,000,000 pounds annually, but probably less than one-half of the crop is packed for long-distance shipment. The choice dates produced in this country meet with a ready sale at good prices.

Not Thrifty in Salty Soil

Palms can be grown in salty soil, but do not thrive in such situations unless the roots have access to a layer of soil containing less than 1 per cent of soluble salts. In view of the present high cost of offshoots and the heavy expense of starting a date plantation, it is desirable to set out date palms in the very best fruit land and not attempt to grow them in alkali soil even though the date palm can stand more alkali than any other commonly cultivated fruit tree.

It is probable that date culture will be the leading fruit industry in many of the hot irrigated valleys of the southwestern United States. It is believed that at least 11 counties lying in southeastern California, southwestern Arizona, and southern Nevada have larger or smaller areas where dates can be grown successfully on a commercial scale. In addition to these 11 counties there is a large area in southern Texas where date palms grow well and where they often ripen fruit. Rains are likely to occur during late summer and fall in most parts of southern Texas and such rains are usually very injurious to ripening dates. It is nevertheless believed that certain date varieties which are resistant to rain and moisture may be grown on a commercial scale in Texas and an experimental trial of the most promising imported varieties is now being undertaken by the Department of Agriculture in cooperation with the Texas experiment station.

FIG. 68.—Oldest date palms of standard varieties growing in California. Two of Rhaar’s variety date palms planted at Indio, Calif., in July, 1900. Photographed October, 1924

The climatic hazards of the date are much less than of oranges, lemons, and other citrus fruits. Young date palms are injured by severe cold weather in winter but after the palms are well established they can stand temperatures as low as 15° F. without serious injury beyond the freezing of a few leaves. Dates are much injured by rain and many varieties are badly injured even by dew or excessive humidity during the ripening season. In general, rains and moist weather are the chief climatic hazards of the date grower.

Yields Large Crops of Fruit

The date palm under favorable conditions yields a large crop of fruit, usually from 100 to 200 pounds, when the palms have reached full size, say 10 years after planting. The cost of picking is low, the curing in the packing house is easily done, and dates can be graded and packed as cheaply as any other dried fruit. The profits from date culture vary greatly according to the skill of the grower and market conditions, and range at the present time from $250 to $750 or even more an acre for plantations in full bearing. Probably the average net annual return is about $500 an acre.

There are many kinds of dates known to the Arabs, probably more than 1,000 in all. More than 100 varieties have been tested in the United States and of these not more than 10 or 15 have proved suitable for commercial culture in this country and only 4 or 5 are being planted on any considerable scale. Among the varieties which are now being grown on a commercial scale are the Deglet Noor from North Africa, the Saidy from Egypt, the Halawy, Khadrawy, and Zaheedy from Mesopotamia, and a few other special varieties grown on a small scale in commercial orchards.  Among the latter is the Thoory from Algeria, which is sold as a dry date, and the Hayany from Egypt, which is likely to be sold soft, just as it is picked from the palm, without drying and curing.  More than nine-tenths of the date palms planted in the United States belong to the seven varieties mentioned, and more than half are of the Deglet Noor variety. Other varieties, some of them very valuable, exist only in limited numbers as yet in this country and are still under trial, though doubtless some of them will some day become commercially important.