This farmer is never short of a date
A BLIND date is one way to describe it. That is what it felt like for Steve Brauer when - sight unseen and with no personal experience with the crop, and little industry knowledge in Australia - he became a date farmer.
The second-generation stone-fruit grower said attracted by the idea of a new, emerging industry, in 2003 he planted 15 trees on his 15ha property at Gurra Gurra, near Berri, in South Australia's Riverland.
Now, he has 400 trees on 4ha, alongside 600 nectarine trees (yielding about 10 tonnes annually), and 30 tonnes of pumpkins annually, all sold to Sydney wholesale markets.
"Back then, not much was known about dates in Australia and it's still the case, I'm learning all the time,” the 54-year-old father of three said.
"I'll talk to anyone who knows anything.
"For three years I've worked with a scientist and his PhD student from Sydney University and speak with experts from Gulf countries, including scientists and farmers.
"There are about three major growers in Australia and we all talk. But it's very much trial and error.
"We can't go on everything that happens in the Gulf countries because the climate and soils are different.”
Steve markets his dates under the Riverland Date Garden brand, selling online and direct through wholesale markets, with plans to value-add in coming years.
The dates are grown in five varieties - barhee (potentially yielding up to 150kg/tree), medjool, khadrawy and nemeishi (each yielding up to 100kg/tree) and khalas (not yet commercial), harvested in a three-week window from the end of January.
PLAYING THE FIELD
WHILE the four other varieties are sold dried, barhee is the most sought after - especially by Middle Eastern nationalities - and sold fresh with a shelf life up to two weeks, returning about $22/kg on last season's figures, according to Steve.
"The appeal of growing dates is that Australia imports about 7000 tonnes annually,” Steve said.
"It's a small growing, niche market in Australia and unlike stone fruit, the length of time to production could be a negative for some to grow dates - up to 10 years for tissue cultured palms to come into commercial production.
"I've had requests for export, but I'm not growing enough yet to make that worthwhile.”
Steve started his planting with three to four-leaf plants aged about one year, bought from a nursery specialising in tissue culture.
He planted in the cooler months of spring, spacing them at 9mx9m in the red sandy loam soil of the Riverland.
The plants began yielding at 10 years of age and will remain commercial for at least 40 years.
"They will outlive me,” Steve said (they can live for more than a century).
Compared to tissue cultured plants, offshoots, called pups, come into production earlier at about four six years.
When planting the palms, he used no fertiliser, but applied quarterly amounts once the roots had developed.
AN agronomist advises on nutrition needs and now each year he tests leaves after harvest.
Generally, dates require potassium and nitrogen, as well as such trace elements such as boron, important for flowering.
Because of the hot, dry climate in the Riverland, there are no disease pressures, but Steve bags bunches to avoid birds, and sprays when ants attack, while also spraying for weeds.
In 2016 his farm was hit by a hailstorm that wiped out $60,000 worth of nectarine crops (he'd previously lost about 7000 stone-fruit trees to drought), while the hail also affected fruit set on date trees.
Gurra Gurra receives an annual average rainfall of about 200mm and Steve irrigates with a bubbler irrigation system, which he believed was more effective given roots spread up to 10m.
While Middle Eastern date farms recommend up to 18 megalitres/ha for dates, he has found they require much less, at about eight megalitres/ha.
Annual pruning of fronds is required, while fronds also need to be de-thorned carefully each year.
"The thorns are tough. They can go through your boots and I've lost a few tractor tyres to them too,” Steve said.
"It's hard work, about 20 minutes per tree, and I do it usually during pollination while I'm up the tree.”
Pollination is the most labour-intensive part of date farming. Generally, one male palm produces enough pollen for 25 females.
Around August, at the time males flower, Steve collects pollen ("very fine, like talc”), dries it and stores it in the fridge.
FROM the end of August to about October, females flower.
Steve then manually pollinates these flowers by blowing the male pollen on to the flower from a dusting bottle, which contains a mix of pollen and cornflour, which he uses as a filler.
"Hopefully then we have even distribution of the male pollen over the female flower cluster,” he said, adding that his farm had two to three flower sets a season.
"With Sydney University we've experimented with different methods of pollinating and at this stage no single method has proved to be the best.”
Once pollinated, bags are tied around the flowers to keep them warm and ensure rain does not wash any of the pollen off.
Pollination is crucial not just for quantity of fruit, but quality.
In the Gulf countries trees can yield as high as 400kg each.
Steve said barhee was the most difficult variety to pollinate, with yields only about 10 per cent of potential.
In general, dates take about six months from the time they first emerge until they are fully ripened.
They are harvested with ladders or cherry pickers, each tree picked up to four times during the season.
Steve has cool-room storage on his property and in coming years is looking to invest in a new shed, grader, destoner and dehydrator.
"Personally, I don't think there's any more work than a lot of other farms,” he said.
"It's just a different type of work. It's labour intensive.
"But a 10kg bunch can be worth $250 and a palm will carry between eight and 12 bunches - with the average weight per bunch between 10-15kg - so you don't have to be a rocket scientist to see there are good returns to be had if you can get it right.”