A fresh drive to revitalize the UAE’s sleepy date farms and transform them into a flourishing industry is underway.
A house without dates is an empty house, or so the prophet Mohammed (Peace be upon him) is once delivered to have said. He may have been speaking many centuries ago, but the ancient maxim still rings true in this region today where dates remain a regular feature at mealtimes and an integral part of UAE culture. This year, as the summer harvest coincides with the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims across the country follow the time old tradition of breaking their fasts with the nutritious fruit, just as the Prophet did all those years ago.
It’s a tradition based on necessity as well as religion, Dates, as Tina Memic, deputy general manager at gourmet date boutique Bateel, says, have a high nutritional profile and provided a vital source of sustenance for early Bedouin surviving against the odds in the arid desert. ” Dates are a power fruit and offer all sorts of health benefits. For a long time, the localago.
It’s a traditional based on necessity as well as religion. Dates,as Tina Memic, deputy general manager at gourmet date boutique Bateel, says have a high nutritional profile and provided a vital source of sustenance for early Bedouin surviving against the odds in the arid desert. ” Dates are a power fruit and offer all sorts of health benefits. For a long time, the local tribes relied on them for food and their cultivation in this region dates back centuries.”
In Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, largest swathes of land are given over to date palm plantations, a number of which, some claim, have been there for several thousand years. It’s only very recently, however, that the fruit has begun to be produced for the mass market.”There isn’t a longstanding tradition of commercial farming in the UAE. Most of the farms around here are small family-run enities that were started about 40 years ago as part of a social welfare programme designed to settle the roaming Bedu people,” explains Ray Moule, technical service director at Abu Dhabi Farmer’s Services Centre (ADFSC).
Once established, the farms were used as vehicles to distribute surplus income from oil to the people via government-financed development and support initiative, most of which have since been dismantled. The result today is that many of Abu Dhabi’s 24,000 date groves are hobby farms and, while some fruit goes to commerical 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, explain Moule, whose organisation is working to reform the capital’s farming system and encourage local date producers to harness the massive earning power of their product.
In Al Ain alone, there are approximately 3.5 million date palm trees. Statistically, the annual yield from this could be around 147,000 tonnes of dried dates a year, but the reality is more like 78,000 tonnes with an approximate value of AED 550 million, says Dr Ismaeil Al Hosany, the head of extension services and technical manager of date palm production at ADFSC. This is the imbalance the organisation is working to redress. “In recent years, the government has moved away from the pld subsidy model and begun working towards a balance between proper farm production and reduction in the strain on natural resources, espically water,” says Moule.
The heavy use of water is of particular concern to experts at ADFSC who pint towards a general mosconception 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,” says Dr Al Hosany. As part of ADFSC’s Date Imporvement Program, Dr.Al Hosany, Moule and their colleagues travel from farm to farm educating workers and owners about best practices, including proper irrigation techniques, in addittion 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.”Traditionally, dates were produced just for the family so there was no great concern about quality but now, with the development of a more sophisticated market there is a demand for a consistent standard of fruit,” explains Moule. Larger varities, such as the glossy Medjool dates, an import from North Africa, fetch the best prices on the market while local tastes tend towards UAE varities including Khalass, Khenaizi, Fard and Dabas, he explains.
Last year, ADFSC introduced the marketing of fresh dates, picking and packaging the fruits in the ‘rotab’ stage when the fruit is just turning from yeloow ( or red in some varities) to golden brown rather than the more commonly known ‘tamr’stage when they have fully dried and gone dark brown. According to Dr.Al Hosany, who professes to consume at least one kilo of dates per day, this is how Emiratis like to eat them, a preference partly influenced by Islamic belief that the Prophet Mohammad (Pbuh) broke his fast with ripe dates. As a result, during the holy month Ramadan, Muslims will traditionally consume three fresh dates with a little milk or laban before saying the evening prayer and eating iftar.
“Dates are very high in nutrients and contain natural sugars like fructose and glucose that are easily and quickly absorbed by the blood. During the fast, which can last as long as 14 or 15 hours, the blood sugar level plummets and there is a danger of eating too much too rapidly at iftar. Dates stabilise the blood sugar level and make you feel instantly fuller so that when you come back from prayers you are more inclined to eat sensibly and your stomach is better prepared to handle the sudden intake of food,”-explains Dr Al Hosany.
As the long-enthusiasm for dates begins to take on a more commercial spirit, companies such as Bat-eel are seeing a positive response from consumers to new date-based food stuffs that range from date jam and syrup to date salad dressing and mustard. There is still ample room for development though. So far, very little research has been carried out into the improvement of existing date varieties.”No one has really worked on date breeding and selection yet. With all the high-tech approaches to genetics available these days, it’s an area that i think is open for further development,” says Moule. Already, the UAE is one of the world’s major date producers and with plans well underway to revolutions the country’s date-farming industry, this may be the perfect place to set the next step in motion.