Benjamin Elkasslasy’s high-tech tending of the Medjool date palms on Israel’s Kibbutz Gilgal produced harvests he could only dream of when he started managing this plantation in 1989.
The recycling of wastewater has been instrumental to the flourishing of Israeli date crops, allowing Israel to claim 60 percent of the global Medjool market today from just a toehold in the 1980s.
That formula may be hitting its limits. This precious source of water is now just enough to water the current crop and further expansion will have to wait for a desalination system to kick in.
“It’s all about water,” Elkasslasy says, pointing out a missed bunch of dates to pickers standing on a raised platform hugging a tall palm.
To ensure no drop is wasted, plantations use sensors that monitor root-absorption, and research and development centers experiment with different grades of water and dwarfing trees. Farmers rising at dawn often call the centers for the daily formula to punch into irrigation computers to guarantee water efficiency, they said.
Finding additional water sources for the Gilgal dates may be complicated by the fact that the kibbutz lies in the West Bank. Palestinians seek the territory, which Israel captured in 1967, for a hoped-for state, so future sovereignty of the area remains uncertain.
The Medjool, whose name means “unknown” in Arabic, came to Israel from California, where Americans were tending palms gifted by the king of Morocco in a bid to save his country’s date heritage after a blight in the 1950s. The Medjool was the only variety that didn’t have a name.
While the Medjool makes up less than 1 percent of the 7.9 million ton global date market -- Egypt and Iran are top producers of dates overall -- it’s the chief variety among the 32,000 tons of dates grown in Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank each year.
Part of its success owes to a re-branding of the fruit by marketers including Hadiklaim, the Israeli date growers’ cooperative, as an exotic delicacy displayed in supermarkets such as Fairway, Marks & Spencer and Coop Swiss. Foodies around the world have added the Medjool to their shopping lists.
“If there was one date variety that the average person would ask for by name it would be the Medjool,” said Mitch Berliner, who runs two farmers markets near Washington, D.C.
Last year, Israeli farmers produced 21,570 tons of Medjools, up 17-fold from 1990, according to Hadiklaim. Among the 14,500 tons of dates Israel exported last year, about 10,000 were Medjools, agriculture officials say. Overall, the volume of Israel’s date exports jumped 23 percent last year to 247 million shekels ($70 million), reaching 27 countries across five continents, they say.
With Israel’s annual rainfall averaging only 1.2 billion cubic meters -- about half the nation’s water consumption, according to the government’s water and sewage authority -- better ways to irrigate crops have always been a priority.
Innovation, starting with the Netafim Irrigation Co.’s development of a drip irrigation system 50 years ago, has contributed to Israel’s success with the Medjool, says Larry Duane Geohring, an agricultural researcher at Cornell University.
“Israel is a leader in water technologies, recycling and conservation,” said Geohring.
The United Nations has identified Israel as a leader in wastewater recycling. Mekorot, Israel’s national water company, says Israel recycles 75 percent of its wastewater, followed by Spain at 12 percent.
At Kibbutz Gilgal, Elkasslasy spends months checking evaporation rates, monitoring data from sensors planted among tree roots and punching numbers into a computer that calculates each palm’s water requirement, then delivers that amount almost to the drop.
For Canadian-born Roy Annau, who has cared for the date orchards at Kibbutz Ein Gedi for more than five decades, the technology can be mind-boggling.
“It’s for the young ones,” the 69-year-old farmer said, reminiscing about the days when he’d turn on a tap in the orchard and return hours later to turn it off. “I’m just a dinosaur.”
With potable water so scarce in Israel, the idea of using treated sewage water started to take hold 30 years ago, though it took time to build acceptance for the idea, said Abraham Tenne, who oversees desalination programs at Israel’s Water Authority.
Since 2000, the Israeli government has spent 2 billion shekels on wastewater treatment infrastructure, with agricultural and other groups contributing an additional 1 billion shekels, according to the Finance Ministry.
Now, further investment is necessary to supplement existing water sources with desalination systems.
“Today we are nearly using all the water and almost can’t plant any more trees,” said Chaim Oren, a consultant to date and fig growers with the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.
Palestinians living in the Israeli-controlled section of the Jordan Valley also started planting dates about five years ago, with about 3,000 acres of Medjool trees under cultivation today, Oren said. They use fresh water allotted under existing peace accords and drill wells into the underground aquifer, he said.
Zuhair Manasra, general manager of Nakheel Palestine for Agricultural Investment, cultivates 740 acres of date trees and plans to add more next year. He, too, says the main obstacle to growth is water.
“We need water reinforcements and need to connect the Jordan Valley to the national water grid so it can benefit from desalination,” Oren said, adding that Palestinians would also be able to use the source.
The plan may be stymied by the lack of a peace agreement. While date plantations inside Israel proper, including the southern Arava desert, will be able to benefit from the desalination program through the national grid, in the yet-to-be-connected Jordan Valley, that may not be the case.
Gilgal business manager Doron Eliahou doesn’t regret the millions of dollars the kibbutz invested in its dates as it finally begins to see a return on its money.
“Now, at least, I can say it’s been worthwhile,” he said.