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DATES : Landmark survives despite development, limited water resources and competition from other crops.

February 09, 1989|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

THERMAL, Calif. — The date palm's elegant silhouette endures here as a desert landmark despite decades of encroachment by condominiums, putting greens and swimming pools.

These exotic transplants, brought from North Africa a century ago, remain a viable crop in the face of sprawling real estate developments, increasingly tight water supplies and the introduction of other, less troublesome crops.

The palms' survival is due primarily to the fact that its silky textured fruit with the distinctive caramel, nut-like flavor commands a handsome $3 to $5 a pound. But just as important, the Californians who grow virtually all of the nation's dates are expert at adapting to the times.

Indeed, some growers have become wealthy by selling their date gardens--the proper term for the stands of palms--to land speculators. But others--forced out by golf courses and time-share developments--simply relocated.

When displaced from the prime growing areas in and around Palm Desert and Rancho Mirage they moved farther south down the Coachella Valley, sometimes far afield from the original plantings.

"When you are talking about something as stately as a palm garden and that goes down for a golf course or condos then it is quite a change," said Karl Killefer, marketing director for California Redi-Date here. "And for the locals, that has a real psychological impact."

Change sometimes offers an opportunity to start again.

In fact, in the past five years more than 2,500 acres of the Coachella have been planted for the first time with date gardens. The additional acreage has more than offset loses incurred during the valley's building boom of the last decade.

It is on the lightly traveled side roads, at either end of this town for instance, where it's quickly apparent that the date industry is still healthy--producing more improved varieties and imaginative products than in the past.

And the names of the fruit, as always, remain musical: Medjool, Barhi, Kasib, Deglet Noor, Zahidi and more than 100 others.

Many of the older, expansive palm gardens spread across lots the size of several city blocks. And the rows of carefully groomed trees, some of which soar several stories, form a much more inviting landscape than the indigenous sagebrush and sand.

These settings, framed by the rugged San Jacinto Mountain Range to the west, recall the fictional oases of desert lore. And the scene takes on a dream-like quality whenever a gentle, winter wind rustles the countless palm fronds into their distinctive whisper.

Certainly, Southern Californians, who have traveled to the area 130 miles south of Los Angeles, can fondly recall their first taste of these subtly sweet fruits. Or remember, as vividly, sipping a date shake at one of several roadside stands that offer the rich drinks. Over the years the National Date Festival, scheduled to begin Feb. 17, has also brought the fruit to the attention of many.

"People have come here for 30, 40 years and the children pick up where the parents leave off," said Ed Kirby, owner of Valerie Jean Date Garden on Highway 86, the desert's oldest roadside stand and gift shop. "Even truckers will regularly stop by and get a package of dates just to eat on the road."

And it is to these visitors, as well as life-long residents, that news of the date growers' current fate is welcome.

To many of Mediterranean ancestry, dates are prized as a treat for special occasions. Others, who learned of the fruit here in the desert, went onto introduce them to children and grandchildren as a natural snack or as ingredients in baked goods and other dishes.

Los Angeles' proximity and ethnic diversity made it the logical choice as the industry's leading marketplace. And it is; followed closely by San Francisco.

Growers and processors hope this regional audience will expand as their crop benefits from its nutritional profile, one that is high in dietary fiber and potassium while being fat-free despite the syrupy, seductive taste.

"Dates are a high-fiber fruit and we just need to get that across," said David Marguleas, merchandising manager for Sun World, which markets 30% of the state's $17.9-million crop through its Sun Date subsidiary. "They are riding a wave of popularity and consumption is going up. We're also hoping that dates will follow raisins and prunes in terms of consumer preference."

Area growers are trying to latch onto the dried-fruit bandwagon, but in a modest way. The industry's promotional literature features a cartoon character in the form of a date. As the nation now knows, a somewhat similar theme was used to make California's raisins famous.

"The date industry is experiencing the first good sales season in probably the last five or six years, " said Killefer. "Several years ago we lost the consumer. This is the first year we have begun to turn that around. Dates are accepted more as a versatile food, a convenient food for recipes. And the nutritional value of dates is well documented. We're working hard at promoting that."

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