THE SA date industry, while still fledgling, is "kicking goals" and continues to grow, according to Australian Date Growers Association chair Steve Brauer.
Mr Brauer grows three varieties of dates - Barhee, Medjool and Khadrawy - at his Riverland Date Garden, via Berri, and is currently undertaking his best-ever harvest.
With wife Dianah helping harvest and mother Jeanette packing it, Mr Brauer is picking autumn-pollinated Barhees and hopes to yield about 6 tonnes.
"We have had a pretty good strike rate so far," he said.
Dates sell for about $25 a kilogram wholesale, with the Brauers currently selling into Sydney Markets, plus online direct to customers.
They are unable to sell the fruit locally, while they remain located in the only fruit fly suspension zone still in place (to be potentially lifted on May 6).
Mr Brauer said the demand for Barhees "way outstrips supply".
"They are very popular in Middle Eastern diets - they originated in Iraq - consumers eat the Barhees as a sweet fresh fruit in the early khalaal stage when it is hard and crunchy," he said.
Mr Brauer said they will continue to pick the Barhees as they ripen over the next few months, leading into their spring-set fruit harvest.
"The spring-set fruit are not as consistent as the autumn-set, but there is still plenty there to harvest," he said.
"By the end of this month, we will also look at harvesting our semi-dried Medjools."
The Millennium drought made us reconsider how to best use our water, or lack thereof.- STEVE BRAUER
Mr Brauer said they put in their first Barhee trees in 2004 and now have about 300 female trees and 60 male trees across 3 hectares, "with room for another 10ha".
"We had been growing stonefruit, but the millennium drought made us reconsider how to best use our water, or lack thereof," he said.
"We also weren't big growers, so we were struggling to see a future in the industry.
"In the early 2000s, we had an Israeli backpacker working for us and he planted the idea in my head.
"He said we had the perfect climate for them, and they don't require as much water, so we made the move."
But Mr Brauer said it has been a "steep learning curve" building the industry, so an association was formed in 2019 to help share knowledge among its members.
The association was also recently successful in obtaining funding through Agrifutures Australia to look into pollination issues faced by members growing Barhees.
"Hopefully we can work through some of the issues for the betterment of the industry," Mr Brauer said.
THERE are about six date growers in SA, which also includes Dave and Heidi Setchell.
They have been growing dates since 2008, first establishing the trees on a 809-hectare (2000 acre) property at Halidon, before moving to a new 13ha (33ac) property east of Loxton in 2018.
They transplanted 130 date palms, 150 caper plants and 150 jujube trees, which are sold under their Black Sheep Produce brand.
"The jujubes transplanted really well, but unfortunately we haven't got to full production on the dates yet," Mrs Setchell said.
"They were only just starting to produce and then we set them back a few years with the move.
"We did sell a small amount of Barhees on the east coast last year and they were well received.
"But our crops are spring pollinated, so hopefully the weather remains favourable until May/June.
"It appears that we have had some good fruit set this year, particularly our Khadrawys."
We wanted to grow crops that were suited more to the Mallee.- HEIDI SETCHELL
The Setchell grow six varieties of dates, with the fruit sold mainly into east coast markets, while the jujubes and capers are sold locally.
Mrs Setchell said they "saw a great future for alternative crops in Australia", with a focus on minimal chemical inputs and sustainability.
"We wanted to grow crops that were suited more to the Mallee, plus we had a farm that had salty groundwater and dates and jujubes were a drought and salt-tolerant option," she said.
"But we soon realised we didn't need 2000ac to do what we wanted to do, so we moved closer to town."
The trees have also been thriving on fresh water irrigation.
"In that first year, our jujubes produced four times the yield that we were getting at the old farm," Mrs Setchell said.
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