( Photo coutresy Mona Mok; Source Unsplash; Graphic by Brooke Park )

Date growers in California’s Coachella Valley had a wild ride this spring.

They anticipated an upswing in sales as Ramadan, a month of daytime fasting for Muslims, got underway on April 23, since observers traditionally break their fast in the evening by consuming dates.

But they were taken by surprise when dates became one of the commodities that got swept off supermarket shelves when consumers went into panic buying mode as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“This is a busy time for us,” said DJ Ryan, sales and operations manager for Coachella, Calif.-based SunDate.

“It’s the biggest pull of the year for medjool dates.”

“You get a pretty good push around Ramadan time,” agreed John Burton, general manager of sales and cooler for Peter Rabbit Farms in Coachella.

But after the panic buying ended and Ramadan observers had completed their pre-Ramadan purchases, sales dropped.

“We’ve seen it go up and down,” Ryan said.

Date suppliers try to pack ahead of time to be prepared for Ramadan, he said.

“This year we had the curveball of COVID-19, which changed everything.”

Dates are an ideal option for “sheltering in place” because they are nutritious and have a long shelf life, said Luke Fountain, sales representative for Bakersfield, Calif.-based Atlas Produce and Distribution Inc., which grows dates in the Coachella Valley.

“Dates are so nutrient dense that I think it was a really easy choice for people to make this year,” he said.

Ryan estimated that 40% of SunDate’s date sales are tied to Ramadan, but he said that even with the COVID-19 surge, the company does not face a product shortage.

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“We have plenty of stock on hand to handle the demand we’re dealing with right now,” he said in late April.

Medjool and deglet noor dates are the major date varieties. 

Medjools, usually sold in tubs, are the bestsellers for Ramadan, Ryan said.

Pitted deglet noors are sold in bags at supermarkets or for industrial use in products like cereal and energy bars.

SunDate harvests medjools in August and September and deglet noors in October.

They are sold from storage throughout the year.

Atlas is hopeful that working with retailers to promote date consumption among kids will help boost sales, Fountain said.

“If kids like them, that encourages adults and families to purchase them,” he said.

The company’s Fresh Energy brand dates are a good choice for consumers looking for an alternative to “energy drinks and energy bars that are full of chemicals and sugars that aren’t natural,” he said.

The company has launched a 2-pound pitted deglet noor standup pouch, he said.

Burton of Peter Rabbit Farms sees young consumers as a budding market for dates.

“If we continue to make inroads with the younger population, I think we will have people enjoying medjool dates for years to come,” he said.

Burton sees potential for a good 2020-21 crop come late summer as long as the weather stays dry during July and August.

“They like hot, dry weather,” he said.