As harvest season approaches, we take a closer look at why dates are significant to the region’s rich culture
Dates have been consumed in this part of the world for thousands of years and were a vital lifeline for the early Bedouin tribes. Their high nutritional profile provided an essential source of sustenance against the odds in the desert. Still revered in the region today, the fruit remains a regular feature at mealtimes and has become synonymous with the culture of the UAE. Even at the time of the breaking of the fast during Ramadan, a date is often the very first food consumed with water. For a long time, local tribes relied on dates for food.
But in this region, this power fruit is more of a tradition that is based on necessity as well as religion and their cultivation dates back centuries. In Al Ain and Abu Dhabi, large swathes of land are given over to date palm plantations, a number of which are estimated to have been there for several thousand years. There isn’t a long-standing tradition of commercial farming in the UAE. It’s only very recently, however, that the fruit has begun to be mass produced. Most of the farms here are small family-run entities that were started about 40 years ago as part of a social welfare programme designed to settle the roaming Bedu people.
Once established, the farms were used to distribute surplus income from oil to the people via government-financed development and support initiatives, most of which have since been dismantled. The result today is that many of the country’s nearly 25,000 date groves are hobby farms and, while some fruit goes to commercial markets, much of the yield is still consumed by the larger family or used as animal feed if the quality is poor. Now, the UAE capital is looking to develop this natural resource and the Abu Dhabi Farmers’ Services Centre (ADFSC) is working to reform the capital’s farming system with the aim of encouraging local date producers to harness the massive earning power of their product.
The heavy use of water is of particular concern to experts at ADFSC who point to a general misconception among local farmers that the more water lavished on date palms, the better. Many of the farms use water to excess, which is disastrous for the health of the trees and the quality of the yield. The soil structure here is extremely fragile and, when over-saturated, cannot retain the nutrients necessary for the date palms to thrive.
As part of ADFSC’s Date Improvement Program, a team of dedicated experts travel from farm to farm educating workers and owners about best practices including proper irrigation techniques, in addition to offering fertiliser and pesticide spraying services. Slowly but surely, ADFSC is making headway, as one by one, the local farmers begin to appreciate the economic potential of their date palms and consequently take better care of them. Larger varieties, such as the glossy Medjool dates, an import from North Africa, fetch the best prices on the market while local tastes tend towards UAE varieties including Khalass, Khenaizi, Fard and Dabas.
Here in the UAE, Khalass dates are the most planted and popular as the warm, dry conditions are ideal for cultivation. The date farming cycle begins in January when the palms begin to produce flowers and are ready for pollination. In March, when the fruit starts to appear, farmers thin the stalks by hand to ensure a quality yield. At different times of the year, the crop is at risk from a variety of pests and diseases and must be sprayed regularly. After this, the fruit is covered with protective nets until harvest time in July or August, when farmers deftly scale the palms using only a rope for leverage while gathering the sweet fruits of their labour. Date palms in the UAE grow up to around 30 feet in height and, if properly cared for, carry on producing dates for up to 150 years.
One of the most significant changes in date farming since Bedouin times has been the introduction of modern drip irrigation to avoid over-saturating the soil. These methods have resulted in favourable conditions for the trees and have helped prevent plant diseases and also avoid essential nutrients being washed away from the soil, which means healthier crop growth. With over 100 varieties of dates grown in the country alone, there’s a lot for visitors to discover.
The Fruit and Vegetable Market at Mina Zayed often sells seasonal varieties or, alternatively, visitors can purchase beautifully packaged boxes of luxury dates from specialised boutiques such as Bateel and enjoy them dipped in chocolate, sprinkled with nuts or stuffed with candied orange. A growing number of date-themed products, such as date mustard and date jam, offer multiple ways to enjoy this delicious fruit and provide the ideal gift to take home for a taste of Arabia.