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Southern California date growers scramble to fill Ramadan orders

Good thing the fruit freezes well, because the shifting timing of the Muslim holy month means this year it's out of sync with the date harvest.

August 18, 2009|Raja Abdulrahim

Each year the Palm Springs resident orders dates for family and friends. Breaking his fast on medjool dates is a custom he has followed since he was a teenager in Egypt.

"During Ramadan, dates is a tradition, like in Christmastime Mexican people eat hot tamales," said Mohammed. "Medjool is the best, like rib-eye steak or T-bone."

At Star Market in Westwood, most of Mostafa Pourvasei's Ramadan customers come in for the medjools, which he gets from the Bard Valley group. For snacks or with tea, the smaller dates might suffice, he said. But when his customers have company, they prefer medjools.

On a recent summer day at SeaView, a worker emptied boxes of dates onto a conveyor belt as a dozen women in gloves and hairnets tossed the fruit into boxes of various medjool grades. The packing was being done for a businessman who had the foresight to buy 50,000 pounds of dates last fall, fearing a possible shortage.

Last fall, most of SeaView's choice grade medjools, about 100,000 pounds, were bought by Fresh Express Produce Inc., a Los Angeles wholesale produce firm owned by Zakaria Trad. He secured 300,000 more pounds from other growers.

"We knew there is a high demand for the medjool," said Trad, who has been selling dates for seven years -- specializing in dates from Medina in Saudi Arabia.

At Trad's office and storage units off Washington Boulevard just south of downtown Los Angeles, two freezer units sit side by side stacked with a plethora of fruits and vegetables that appeal to his clients, Middle Eastern grocers across the country.

Three weeks before Ramadan was to begin, Trad began his annual tradition of visiting groceries across the country to sell what dates he had left.

During a stop in Chicago last year, Trad recalled, he walked into a grocery store a few days after Ramadan had started to find that it had no dates. The owner was relieved to see him.

"These people want to be saved," he said. "They don't want to be in Ramadan without any dates."

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raja.abdulrahim@latimes.com

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