Dates may be one of the oldest fruits known to man, dating back to 4,000 or 5,000 years ago in the ancient kingdoms of Chaldea, Assyria and Babylonia.
Perhaps none was more prized than the Medjool. In earlier times, the Medjool date was considered such a delicacy that the royalty of Morocco hoarded all the fruit for themselves and their families.
They've come a long way since then.
While the Medjool date is still the king of dates, it's no longer just the date of kings. And today much of the world's production of nature's perfect treat is centered in the Yuma-Bard area of the American desert Southwest.
Much has changed as well in the processing of the fruit with modern technology taking an ever larger role — and it's all happening right here in Yuma.
Datepac, which has two Medjool date packing plants in the Yuma area, is in the midst of a multiyear expansion. It represents a significant investment of millions of dollars in new trees, increased processing capacity, advanced technology and an aggressive marketing campaign.
Datepac was established in 2002 by five area growers and owners, who together control about 60 percent of the Medjool date crop in the United States.
“They saw the potential for growth,” said Edward O'Malley, president of Datepac.
The timing seemed right, he said, as Americans become increasingly health-conscious and turn to healthier fruits and vegetables in their diets.
The company's goal is to double output, O'Malley said.
The first step was to double the plantings in both the Bard and Yuma areas. As those trees come to maturity, two things need to happen, said O'Malley.
First, the company needs double its physical capacity to process twice the fruit it does now, he said. At the same time, it needs to create new consumer demand.
Two years ago the company began using a plant in Somerton that had belonged to one of the grower members of Datepac. Five new conditioning rooms have been completed, where some moisture is removed to increase the fruit's shelf life. Five more conditioning rooms are planned. Each state-of-the-art facility uses advance technology to monitor room temperature and humidity to ensure optimum product quality.
Meanwhile, a new freezer room is under construction at the company's main plant in Yuma that will hold 2 million pounds of product or more, O'Malley said. It's the first of several new freezers that will be added over the coming years.
The expansion is about more than bricks and mortar, though.
Another big investment is in technology. Datepac uses two types of camera technology, O'Malley said.
In Somerton, cameras color-screen the fruit for sorting. In the Yuma plant, infrared cameras and related software sort the fruit by size and appearance.
“It helps us get more consistent quality,” O'Malley said. “It's like a beauty contest. People want perfect-looking produce.”
He explained that an infrared camera takes a picture of each piece of fruit, then the software processes the images and tells the packing line where to send the individual fruit in the sorting lines, “all in the matter of seconds.”
They process over 200,000 pounds a day with over 600 employees during the season that runs from Labor Day to about Thanksgiving, he said. “We wouldn't have enough space to spread out for humans to sort by hand. And space is expensive.”
As production increases, Datepac also is working to create consumer demand for a product that's relatively unknown, O'Malley said.
“We have an extremely healthy product that is good for you. But we didn't have consumer awareness. We didn't have a branded name before that says ‘Let me know in a split second why I should buy this product.'”
A year ago, Datepac branded its fruit as Bard Valley Natural Delights, which quickly tells consumers it is natural and it tastes good, he explained.
They're also good for you, with fiber, antioxidants, rich in potassium and other minerals, low glycemic index and fat- and cholesterol-free.
Besides a traditional treat out of hand or covered in chocolate, Medjool dates can be added to cookies, muffins or tarts. Cooks stuff dates with cream cheese, sausage or nuts. One popular recipe is to stuff the dates with nuts and wrap them in bacon.
Natural Delights Medjool date products are available at Albertsons stores, Basket Creations and More in downtown Yuma and at the grower members' farms.
For information, including recipes, serving suggestions and nutritional information, go to www.naturaldelights.com or email email@example.com.
Joyce Lobeck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6853. Find her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/YSJoyceLobeck or on Twitter at @YSJoyceLobeck.